Lineker row threatens to topple BBC chiefs and hit Tory asylum plans | BBC

The row triggered by Gary Lineker’s suspension from the BBC was spiralling out of control on Saturday night as it threatened to bring down the corporation’s most senior leaders and even derail parts of the government’s controversial new asylum policy.

The crisis reached new heights as the BBC was forced to dramatically scale down its TV and radio sports coverage and put its Match of the Day programme – normally fronted by Lineker – on air without presenters, pundits or the normal post-match interviews with players, many of whom came out in solidarity with him. The show, scheduled for 80 minutes, will only air for 20 minutes on Saturday night.

On Saturday night the BBC chairman, Richard Sharp, and its director general, Tim Davie, were both under growing pressure to resign, after leading sports and media figures defended Lineker’s right to criticise what he regards as racist language used by ministers to promote their immigration policy. On Saturday evening, Davie insisted he would not quit.

In a sign that the government feared being seen as the reason for Lineker’s suspension, the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, described him as “a great footballer and a talented presenter”. He said he hoped “that the current situation between Gary Lineker and the BBC can be resolved in a timely manner, but it is rightly a matter for them, not the government”.

BBC staff past and present tore into the corporation’s handling of the wider freedom of speech and neutrality issues at the heart of the row.

Several contrasted the Lineker case with the controversy swirling around Sharp, who is under scrutiny over the role he played in securing an £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson, when he was prime minister, at a time when Sharp himself was applying for the post of BBC chair.

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On Saturday, as reverberations were felt across the worlds of sport, media and politics, Liverpool’s German manager, Jürgen Klopp, waded in, defending Lineker’s right to speak out on what he said were human rights issues: “It is a really difficult world to live in, but if I understand it properly this is an opinion about human rights and that should be possible to say.”

Lineker was criticised by home secretary Suella Braverman after he compared the language used by ministers to describe their asylum policies to that of the Nazis in 1930s Germany. On Friday evening the popular former England striker was asked by the corporation to step back from Match of the Day while a resolution was sought.

The Observer understands that Lineker was told he had no option after he refused an offer to settle the matter with an apology. Earlier in the week he had been assured there would be no action taken against him, prompting some to suspect that pressure from government turned BBC minds against him.

Immediately after his suspension was announced, fellow presenters and pundits came out in solidarity, including MOTD regulars Ian Wright, Alan Shearer and Jermaine Jenas. Alex Scott, presenter of Football Focus, pulled out of her show, while much of BBC Radio 5 Live’s sports reporting was replaced by recorded content.

Amid signs that the row may be changing public perception of the government’s asylum policy, the furore has also exposed deep Tory splits and unease over its hardline nature, under which refugees arriving on small boats in the UK will be detained and deported “within weeks” – either to their own country if it is safe or a third nation if it is not.

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Several senior Tories, including Priti Patel – herself a hardliner on immigration while in charge at the Home Office – are expected to raise their concerns about what the bill, which has its second reading in the Commons on Monday, means for the treatment of children who arrive in the UK with their parents. Other Tory MPs are concerned that it breaches international law and the UK’s international treaty obligations.

Tobias Ellwood, Tory chair of the Commons defence select committee, said he needed reassurance that there would be workable routes by which genuine asylum seekers could reach the UK “so this is seen as a genuine attempt to save lives … not just the bombastic rhetoric that riled people like Gary Lineker”.

The row overshadowed a bilateral mini-summit between Sunak and France’s president Emmanuel Macron on Friday which was supposed to “reset” Anglo-French relations and chart a way forward on boats carrying asylum seekers crossing the Channel.

The BBC apologised for changes to the weekend’s sporting schedule and said it was “working hard to resolve the situation and hope to do so soon”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the BBC of “caving in” to Conservative MPs, saying such behaviour was “the opposite of impartial”. “They got this one badly wrong and now they’re very, very exposed,” Starmer said. “Because at the heart of this is the government’s failure on the asylum system. And rather than take responsibility for the mess they’ve made, the government is casting around to blame anybody else – Gary Lineker, the BBC, civil servants, the ‘blob’.”

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Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, called for Sharp to resign. “We need leadership at the BBC that upholds our proud British values and can withstand today’s consistently turbulent politics and Conservative bullying tactics.

“Sadly, under Richard Sharp’s leadership, this has not been the case: his appointment and position are now totally untenable and he must resign.”

Roger Mosey, once a BBC head of news and a former director of sport, also called for Sharp to quit: “Richard Sharp should go. He damages the BBC’s credibility. Ideally, Lineker should stay within clear, agreed guidelines. And the BBC should send out its executives to be interviewed and explain how they intend to resolve this crisis.”

Former BBC news boss Phil Harding said he felt the row had been largely “confected” by politicians and so the decision to cover the story so comprehensively after Lineker had made his critical tweet “was insane”.

Mark Damazer, a former member of the BBC Trust and one-time controller of Radio 4, said Davie should not stand down, because the director general had to enforce current guidelines. “There was no good option for Tim. He either had to act or ignore the guidelines. And Gary had certainly been here before. He is at least as brilliant a broadcaster as people say, but that does not mean he is above the guidelines. However, putting the original story so high on the news agenda is a classic BBC phenomenon, because the BBC is so nervous about not appearing to cover its own problems. I can see exactly why they veered in that direction.”

Much of the anger among BBC staff focuses on the appointment of Sharp as chairman. Even those who support BBC attempts to rein in Lineker’s political comments argue that Sharp, whose actions are still under investigation because he failed to mention the aid he gave Johnson when he was interviewed for the job, has already seriously damaged the image of the public service broadcaster.

BBC 5 Live presenter Nihal Arthanayake said: “The director general has been very clear that impartiality is his priority and I have seen that play out with a focus that I have not witnessed before. One of the many questions raised by Gary and his tweets is while he has been asked to ‘step back’, why is a man who is reported to have donated £400k to the Conservative party still the chairman of the BBC?

“I have been asked this many times now. If perception is important, how will the BBC deal with that issue? I struggled with posting this because I felt fearful to do so. But then I realised that this is a legitimate question that would be discussed on my show. I feel sad that I should feel fearful though. I believe in the BBC passionately, but consistency is important.”

Damazer said he could see one possible route to peace: “It could work if the BBC agrees to consult on the guidelines and ask if they ought to be redrawn, after consultation with viewers and presenters – and if Gary agrees to hold back from commenting on the news meanwhile. You do have to say though that if Richard Sharp was to stay and Lineker was to go, it would look peculiar.”

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