With just 32 words posted on Twitter, one of the U.K.’s most beloved sports personalities found himself at the centre of a national controversy, the likes of which had not been seen since Partygate.
Gary Lineker’s face was splashed across the front page of more than three dozen newspapers in less than two weeks in a squabble that has called into question the impartiality of the country’s public broadcaster, the BBC.
Lineker, 62, is a former professional soccer player who spun his career as an athlete into a role as a commentator on the BBC’s popular soccer program Match of the Day.
But on March 7, Lineker swapped sports commentary for political commentary on social media, taking aim at the government’s proposed legislation effectively attempting to ban asylum seekers from the U.K..
The policy would see individuals who tried to cross the English Channel detained and returned either to their home country or to a third country, such as Rwanda, whether that was near their country of origin or not.
The proposed policy has attracted international condemnation from human rights organizations. They allege the Illegal Migration Bill, which passed second reading this week, would contravene international humanitarian law.
Following the reveal of this proposed legislation, Lineker retweeted a video of Home Secretary Suella Braverman explaining it with the comment, “Good heavens, this is beyond awful.”
When pressed on why he thought it awful, Lineker wrote: “There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the ’30s, and I’m out of order?”
That could have been the end of the story. Except, with a following of 8.9 million people, Lineker attracted widespread criticism from Conservative Party politicians and supporters. Within 72 hours, the BBC suspended him for breaches of the corporation’s impartiality guidelines.
‘Straight to the heart’ of BBC’s reputation
This only stoked the flames of the scandal; his fellow commentators backed him and boycotted Match of the Day, as well as other programs.
“Everybody knows what Match of the Day means to me, but I’ve told the BBC I won’t be doing it,” said fellow English soccer legend Ian Wright on Twitter. “Solidarity.”
BBC did air Match of the Day last weekend, but without hosts. The 80-minute highlight reel, typically peppered with insights by commentators, was condensed to 20 minutes, airing as a mashup of game clips with no voiceover. Viewers came in droves to watch the slow-motion car crash, with an extra half million people tuning in.
By the beginning of this week, the BBC had reversed course, asking Lineker to return to Match of the Day, and issuing a full apology.
While Lineker’s goal was to discuss the government’s immigration policy, what his suspension and consequent reinstatement has done is to get the ball rolling on a discussion of the BBC’s impartiality, and because of his popularity, it’s become a topic for the masses to debate.
The BBC’s director general, Tim Davie, has pinned the controversy on the public broadcaster’s lack of clarity around social media policy for people working for the corporation in roles that aren’t specifically news related.
“The BBC has a commitment to impartiality in its Charter and a commitment to freedom of expression,” Davie’s statement read. “That is a difficult balancing act to get right where people are subject to different contracts and on-air positions, and with different audience and social media profiles.”
In addressing a parliamentary committee this week, Melanie Dawes, the chief executive of the U.K.’s Office of Communications (commonly known as Ofcom), which oversees the BBC’s charter, did not mince words, saying the public broadcaster’s reputation for impartiality was on the line.
“Clearly an episode like this goes straight to the heart of that wider reputation beyond their news and current affairs coverage,” Dawes said.
While the Lineker incident has attracted the most attention, it’s not isolated.
The day before the BBC’s bizarre, hostless Match of the Day, The Guardian reported that the public broadcaster was refusing to air an episode of David Attenborough’s latest nature documentary series looking at environmental degradation in the British Isles. Sources within the BBC told The Guardian that the decision “was made to fend off potential critique from the political right.”
The BBC has denied this allegation and insisted that the series was originally intended only to be five episodes, and so the sixth will not air on TV but will be made available online.
The Guardian also reported this month on emails and Whatsapp messages sent early in the pandemic from BBC editors to journalists asking them not to use the word “lockdown,” specifically citing Downing Street’s desire to see this language removed from coverage.
And last month, news broke that the BBC’s chairman, Richard Sharp, had helped former prime minister Boris Johnson secure an £800-million loan, and he’d failed to disclose this information while applying for the job as chairman. Sharp has faced calls for his resignation ever since.
Heavy, uneven hand
Social media guidelines have become common practice for journalists, as Suzanne Franks, professor of journalism at City University of London, points out. The difference here, she said, is Lineker is not a journalist, but a sports presenter.
“I think the problem was that the BBC, for some reason, just went into a complete meltdown about this,” Franks said.
The Lineker saga has also shone a light on the unfair treatment non-news presenters are receiving.
This week, Lineker’s agent said his client believed he had an understanding with the BBC that he was permitted to speak on refugee issues and immigration. This would not be unprecedented, as other commentators who appear on the BBC have such agreements — for example, conservative commentator Alan Sugar is regularly seen criticizing the Labour Party on various platforms, including social media.
The whole kerfuffle has cast aspersions on the director general himself. Davie previously worked in marketing for Pepsi, but also served in the ’90s as deputy chairman for a regional Conservative Party association and ran himself to be a councillor, though unsuccessfully.
On the BBC, Davie gave an interview addressing this concern, but denied it had any sway over his administration of the public broadcaster.
“Anyone who knows me, knows that yes, 30 years ago, some political involvement. But [I’m] absolutely not affected by pressure from one party or the other. That is not how we work, editorially, in the BBC,” Davie said.
Biting the hand that feeds
Franks isn’t convinced this is a story of political leanings of the top brass at the BBC, but likely more related to the governing Tories announcing their plans last year to dramatically slash funding to the public broadcaster.
“The BBC is, as a public broadcaster, beholden to the government and there have been times in its history — and now, unfortunately, is one of them — when they are absolutely enthralled to what the government wants and what the government thinks,” she said.
“And when last week this tweet came out saying that the government’s comments about migrants are redolent of some of the language used in 1930s Germany, the BBC obviously was worried, terrified.”
Whatever way you look at it, Franks said, Lineker won this standoff. He never issued an apology, and has instead stood by his words.
“After a surreal few days, I’m delighted that we have navigated a way through this. I want to say thank you all for the incredible support, particularly my colleagues at BBC Sport, for the remarkable show of solidarity,” Lineker said on Twitter. “Football is a team game but their backing was overwhelming.”
But in what he offered as a final comment, he ended where he started, advocating for empathy for migrants and refugees.
“However difficult the last few days have been, it simply doesn’t compare to having to flee your home from persecution or war to seek refuge in a land far away.”
With files from Lyndsay Duncombe