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BBC puts Lineker back on air in a bid to quell massive public outcry

BBC puts Lineker back on air in a bid to quell massive public outcry
Gary Lineker arrives at the stadium prior to the Premier League match between Leicester City and Chelsea FC at The King Power Stadium on 11 March 2023 in Leicester, England. (Photo: Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Former England football captain Gary Lineker will return to air on the BBC this week after being reinstated. The broadcaster also launched a social media guidance review.

Britain’s BBC reinstated its highest-paid presenter Gary Lineker on Monday after its suspension of the former England football captain for criticising state immigration policy brought a public backlash and near mutiny at the public broadcaster.

Embarrassingly for the BBC, it had to axe core weekend sports coverage after presenters, pundits and commentators refused to work, in solidarity with Lineker.

Some staff, opposition politicians and commentators accused the corporation, which has a mandate to be neutral, of bowing to pressure from the government, prompting Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to urge a swift resolution of the situation.

The affair also renewed questions over the credibility of BBC chairman Richard Sharp. He failed to declare facilitating a loan for former Prime Minister Boris Johnson shortly before he was appointed to the role by the government.

Read more in Daily Maverick:Mutiny at the BBC: Lineker row causes growing crisis at UK broadcaster

The 62-year-old Lineker, a prolific striker who won the Golden Boot with England at the 1986 World Cup, is expected to return on Saturday for the flagship Premier League highlights show “Match Of The Day” which he has hosted since 1999.

“I have been presenting sport on the BBC for almost three decades and am immeasurably proud to work with the best and fairest broadcaster in the world,” he tweeted, before returning to the topic of immigration.

“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.”

The publicly-funded BBC suspended him for breaching impartiality rules by comparing the rhetoric of interior minister Suella Braverman to language used in 1930s Germany.

Braverman has described the arrival of thousands of asylum seekers on small boats as an “invasion” and said that without a legal change, 100 million people could be entitled to enter.

Refugee debate

Lineker has previously hosted refugees in his home and co-founded a podcast production company whose shows include popular “The Rest is Politics”. He had called the new government hardline policy towards boats “immeasurably cruel”.

 The furore came as the broadcaster seeks to navigate increasingly polarised debate in Britain over everything from trans rights to immigration and colonial history.

Embarrassingly for the BBC, it had to axe core weekend sports coverage after presenters, pundits and commentators refused to work, in solidarity with Lineker.

One senior BBC News employee said Lineker’s tweets had arguably undermined its attempt to stay impartial, but said most anger within the corporation was directed at the chairman.

“Everyone suspects, though we can’t know for sure, that if Lineker had tweeted support for the government’s migrant policy then he wouldn’t have been suspended,” the employee told Reuters, asking to remain anonymous. 

BBC pundit Gary Lineker on 7 January 2023 in Sheffield, England. (Photo: James Gill – Danehouse / Getty) Images)

Freelancer social media review

The BBC said it would now review how freelancers such as Lineker, in areas outside news, can use social media.

Sunak’s spokesperson welcomed the resolution.

The BBC board, led by chairman Sharp, welcomed the agreement and described impartiality as a “cornerstone” of the BBC.

Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said Sharp’s position was increasingly untenable.

Tim Davie became BBC director general in 2020, vowing to uphold the corporation’s impartiality, one of the principles used to justify the  £159-a-year ($192) licence fee imposed on every TV-watching household.

He said in a BBC interview on Monday that the suspension had been appropriate and that the presenter had agreed to stick to current editorial guidelines until a new policy is formed.

“Everyone recognises this has been a difficult period for staff, contributors, presenters and, most importantly, our audiences,” Davie said in a statement. “I apologise for this.”

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However, announcing the agreement with Lineker, he acknowledged “potential confusion caused by the grey areas” of those guidelines and welcomed him back.

“I want to get matters resolved and our sport content back on air,” said Davie.

“Impartiality is important to the BBC. It is also important to the public. The BBC has a commitment to impartiality in its Charter and a commitment to freedom of expression. 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. 

“The BBC’s social media guidance is designed to help manage these sometimes difficult challenges and I am aware there is a need to ensure that the guidance is up to this task. It should be clear, proportionate, and appropriate. 

David’s statement confirmed that Lineker will be back on air this week. “I know how much the BBC means to Gary, and I look forward to him presenting our coverage this coming weekend.”

Lineker said Davie had “an almost impossible job keeping everybody happy, particularly in the area of impartiality”. Reuters/DM

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