Home / Opinion / Columns /  Lineker scored a hat-trick over the BBC’s withdrawn red card

During his playing years as English football’s famous striker in the 1980s and 90s, Gary Lineker was never cautioned by a referee or sent off the pitch. It wasn’t until after his playing career that the referees at the BBC blew the whistle. As the world now knows, the star football pundit, host of the BBC’s flagship Match of the Day programme and its highest paid personality, was benched last week over fears that his tweet about the government’s new immigration bill compromised the broadcaster’s commitment to impartiality. The sound that followed was the deafening roar from the footballing world flooding the pitch to back Lineker.

After a weekend of curtailed programming and resignation threats from other top hosts, the BBC announced Monday that it will bring Lineker back on air. The Beeb apologized for “potential confusion caused by the grey areas" of its social media guidelines and will subject them to an independent review. So Lineker will return, along with his co-commentators Ian Wright and Alan Shearer (both had walked out in solidarity with Lineker).

That comes as a relief to fans. But it leaves a question mark over the BBC’s governance. Instead of defending impartiality, its reaction exposed its guidelines as fuzzy and their application as random. The existing guideline notes that individuals identified with the corporation “have the potential to compromise the BBC’s impartiality and to damage its reputation." But the next paragraph says that “the risk is lower where an individual is expressing views publicly on an unrelated area, for example, a sports or science presenter expressing views on politics or the arts."

Lineker has always maintained his right to talk about issues he cares about. While broadcasting from the World Cup, he called out Qatar’s human-rights record. If that made the BBC uncomfortable, they didn’t stop him. There is no reason that sports or entertainment personalities shouldn’t have some room to express their views on issues that matter to them on their social media channels, even when that’s inconvenient to the government of the day. Indeed, other major personalities from Brian Cox to David Attenborough have done so. Most people are able to differentiate between a sports pundit who expresses a view on an issue and a political presenter who does so. Clearly, there are boundaries, but the BBC should err on the side of free speech.

The longer-term damage to the BBC here isn’t from one bad call, but the appearance of a double standard for integrity.

The selection of BBC Chairman Richard Sharp (a generous donor to the Conservative Party in the past) is the subject of an investigation after it emerged that he had facilitated an £800,000 credit facility to his friend, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, at a time when Sharp was a candidate for the BBC job. Sharp made clear since that he had made an introduction to a government official who could advise on the matter and was not himself involved in making or arranging the loan. A parliamentary panel report concluded that Sharp had made “significant errors of judgment" and called on him to “consider the impact his omissions will have on trust in him, the BBC and the public appointments process."

Still, it struck many as suspect that a broadcaster whose leadership has such Tory ties cracked down on a sports pundit who was criticizing a Tory policy. The irony is that Johnson spent much of his time in office criticizing the BBC for bias in the other direction. The BBC’s job now isn’t just to straighten out where its impartiality guidelines apply, but to ensure that its own leadership is viewed as unimpeachable.

The whole saga is awkward for the government, too, despite the free advertising its immigration bill got. It is nearly always counterproductive and wrong to invoke Nazi Germany to make a political point, as Lineker did in his tweet. Lineker’s broader point, however, was to note the dangerous rhetoric underpinning a bill that essentially makes it illegal to claim asylum in Britain, and which, by the government’s admission, is likely a breach of international law. By noting the “immeasurable cruelty" of the bill, Lineker was making a moral argument that even the Labour Party has shied away from. Nor is Lineker about to give up talking about the issue. “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 Monday. “It’s heart-warming to have seen the empathy towards their plight from so many of you."

In a few moves, then, Lineker has shown up the flaws in the BBC’s governance, the cynicism at the heart of the government’s immigration policy and the hollowness of the Labour Party’s carefully curated indignation—a hat-trick from a pundit who knows how to score.


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