The BBC is embroiled in a mounting crisis over its decision to force Gary Lineker to “step back” from hosting its highest-profile sports programme after accusing him of breaching its political impartiality policy.
Lineker’s suspension from Premier League highlights show Match of the Day has triggered a walkout by other BBC staff and contributors, plunging its weekend sports coverage into chaos.
The case comes as BBC director-general Tim Davie seeks to buttress the corporation’s impartiality, which he said was his key ambition when he took over in September 2020. But the row is piling pressure on the corporation’s leadership over its perceived pro-government bias.
“This is the biggest clusterfuck since the Newsnight debacle,” said one senior BBC manager, referring to a scandal about the mishandling of sexual abuse allegations in 2012.
On Tuesday, Lineker reacted to the government’s latest migration policy by tweeting that it was “immeasurably cruel”, adding that the language used about migrants was “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”. The BBC suspended him on Friday, saying he would “step back” from the show.
A swath of BBC sports coverage was disrupted on Saturday as anger over his suspension mounted. Afternoon shows Football Focus and Final Score were cancelled while radio station 5 Live switched from scheduled sports programming to podcasts.
Alex Scott, a former England international and host of Football Focus, tweeted that “it just doesn’t feel right going ahead with the show today”.
While Match of the Day will go ahead, the BBC has been forced to radically change its format after Lineker’s co-presenters pulled out. The show usually features highlights from the day’s Premier League football matches and discussion of the games. The BBC said that this week it would instead “focus on match action without studio presentation or punditry”.
Football players will not be asked to participate in interviews for the show. Players’ union the Professional Footballers’ Association said it had been speaking to its members “who wanted to take a collective position and to be able to show their support for those who have chosen not to be part of tonight’s episode”.
Lineker, who has been a household name in Britain since the 1980s, was a star player for England at two World Cups and has been presenting Match of the Day since 1999.
He owns one-third of Goalhanger Podcasts, which produces “The Rest is Politics”, fronted by former Labour spin-doctor Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart, a liberal ex-Tory MP. One BBC editor called it “the house journal of the centrist dads”.
The BBC has long been accused by some rightwing politicians of being biased towards liberal views. One senior BBC executive said that Lineker’s liberal personal politics were “the problem”. “This would be less of a problem if he was a Maoist.”
BBC journalists have reported rising unease inside the corporation about the management team’s interpretation of impartiality in recent years. “Editors [are increasingly] looking to pre-empt the inevitable Downing Street complaints,” one insider said.
Richard Sharp, the BBC chair, has been subjected to criticism for failing to reveal his alleged involvement in discussions related to a loan for up to £800,000 for Boris Johnson, the prime minister who recommended him for the role shortly after. Sharp has denied wrongdoing and is refusing to quit, saying he neither facilitated nor arranged financing for Johnson.
Greg Dyke, the former director-general, said on Saturday that “the BBC has undermined its own credibility [by suspending Lineker] because it looks like — the perception out there — that the BBC has bowed to government pressure”.
The row has also put the BBC under pressure over its continued employment of Lord Alan Sugar, who endorsed the Conservatives in 2017 and 2019. Sugar presents The Apprentice, a reality show.
However, a senior producer said that in the wake of the Sharp revelations they felt pressured to find stories that would be unhelpful to the Conservatives. “It was a bit ‘let’s show them we’re not biased’.”
The row leaves BBC management searching for a means of resolving the stand-off with some of its most prominent staff.
One former senior leader at the BBC said: “They haven’t left themselves an exit.” Several insiders speculated that either Lineker or Davie might be forced out.
Another former executive said: “If you’re Tim [Davie] and you made impartiality your pitch, you have to die on this hill. In fact, it’s Tim’s hill. If anyone is going to die, it has to be him. But we can’t have that.”
“The obvious thing to do is to hold an independent review of the rules, get Gary back and ask him not to tweet on this in the meantime.”
As a sports presenter, Lineker is already granted more leeway than BBC journalists in expressing his opinions publicly. Some critics of the corporation have suggested the rules should be loosened further.
In a statement, the BBC said: “The BBC will only be able to bring limited sport programming this weekend and our schedules will be updated to reflect that. We are sorry for these changes which we recognise will be disappointing for BBC sport fans. We are working hard to resolve the situation and hope to do so soon.”
Barbara Slater, director of BBC Sport, told staff on Saturday: “We are working hard to resolve the situation.”
“We understand how unsettling this is for all of you,” she said in an email to BBC Sport staff. “We understand the strength of feeling which has been generated by the issue.”
Prime minister Rishi Sunak said on Saturday that the dispute was a matter for the BBC and Lineker, not the government, although he hoped it “can be resolved in a timely manner”.
Additional reporting by Josh Noble and Reuters