The BBC called a truce Monday in its showdown with sports commentator Gary Lineker, reversing its suspension of the former soccer great for a tweet that criticized the U.K. government’s contentious new migration policy.
The about-face followed a weekend of chaos and crisis for Britain’s publicly funded national broadcaster, which faced a huge backlash after sidelining one of its best-known hosts because he expressed a political opinion. “Gary is a valued part of the BBC and I know how much the BBC means to Gary, and I look forward to him presenting our coverage this coming weekend,” BBC Director-General Tim Davie said. Lineker, 62, said he was “glad that we have found a way forward.”
Lineker, one of England’s most lauded players and the corporation’s highest-paid television presenter, was suspended Friday after he described the government’s plan to detain and deport migrants arriving by boat as “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”
The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail – two right-leaning newspapers long critical of the BBC – expressed outrage over what they described in headlines as Lineker’s “Nazi” comment, although he had not used the word.
The Conservative government called Lineker’s comparison offensive and unacceptable, and some lawmakers said the BBC should terminate his contract. The broadcaster had said that Lineker would be “stepping back” until he agreed to keep his tweets within BBC impartiality rules.
Critics accused it of suppressing free speech, and the BBC was forced to scrap much of its weekend sports programming after commentators, analysts and Premier League players refused to appear on air as a show of support for Lineker.
The flagship “Match of the Day” program was reduced from the usual 90 minutes of highlights and analysis to a 20-minute compilation of clips from the day’s games, without commentary or punditry. Other TV and radio soccer shows were pulled from the schedule on Saturday and Sunday as the boycott spread.
Davie insisted Monday that the BBC “did the right thing” by suspending Lineker, but there would now be an independent review of its social media rules to address “gray areas” in the guidelines. “Between now and when the review reports, Gary will abide by the editorial guidelines,” he said.
Davie said the BBC “has a commitment to impartiality in its Charter,” as well as a commitment to freedom of expression. “That is a difficult balancing act to get right,” he said.
The furor reflects the distinctive nature of U.K. media, where newspapers are highly opinionated and news broadcasters are required to be balanced – especially the taxpayer-funded BBC, which has a duty to be impartial.
The crisis dramatically illustrated the pressures long faced by the 100-year-old BBC in an increasingly polarized political and media world. Those on the right often sense a leftist slant in the broadcaster’s news output, while some liberals accuse it of having a conservative bias.
Opposition politicians accuse the government of political meddling by pushing for Conservative-friendly bosses for the BBC. Davie is former Conservative local-government candidate. BBC chairman Richard Sharp is a Conservative Party donor who helped arrange a loan in 2021 for then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, weeks before Sharp was appointed to the BBC post on the government’s recommendation.
The Conservatives also periodically suggest changing the BBC’s funding model. It gets much of its money from a license fee paid by all households with a television. The opposition Labour Party’s culture and media spokeswoman, Lucy Powell, said the Conservatives “have long wanted to undermine the BBC.” “As well as a review of the BBC’s social media guidelines, this saga should prompt the government to examine how it protects and promotes a truly independent and impartial BBC,” she said. As part of its commitment to impartiality, the BBC bars news staff from expressing political opinions.
Lineker, as a freelancer who doesn’t work in news or current affairs, isn’t bound by the same rules, and has sometimes pushed the boundaries of what the BBC considers acceptable. Last year, the BBC found that Lineker breached impartiality rules with a tweet about alleged donations from Russians to the Conservatives.
James Harding, a former BBC director of news, said the corporation has got into a “muddle” over the issue of impartiality. He said it was important that the broadcaster “that delivers news and information that informs the country is impartial,” but added: “You can’t get to a world in which the BBC is policing the opinions of every writer, director, musician, sports personality, scientist, business entrepreneur.”
Lineker said it had been “a surreal few days” and thanked colleagues for their support. And he showed no signs of stopping his use of social media. “A final thought: 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,” he tweeted to his 8.8 million followers. “It’s heartwarming to have seen the empathy towards their plight from so many of you.”