Spiraling Dispute With Star Host Puts BBC’s Reputation on the Line

As an English soccer star, Gary Lineker was renowned for never having been penalized with a yellow or red card in his 16-year career. As a politically opinionated sports broadcaster for the BBC, Mr. Lineker has tangled regularly with the officials, and his suspension over a Twitter post on immigration this week escalated into a crisis that now engulfs the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Mr. Lineker’s standoff with the BBC has set off a noisy national debate over free expression, government influence and the role of a revered, if beleaguered, public broadcaster in an era of polarized politics and freewheeling social media. It came after a walkout by Mr. Lineker’s soccer colleagues forced the BBC to radically curtail its coverage of a national obsession, reducing the chatty flagship show he usually anchors, “Match of the Day,” to 20 commentary-free minutes.

On Sunday, the BBC was struggling to work out a compromise with Mr. Lineker that would put him back on the air, after days of controversy over his criticism of a government plan to crack down on asylum seekers. But the fallout from the dispute is likely to be wide and long-lasting, casting doubt over the corporation’s management, which has made political impartiality a priority but has faced persistent questions about its own close ties to Britain’s Conservative government.

“All this has put the BBC’s independence at risk, and its reputation at risk,” said Claire Enders, a London-based media researcher and the founder of Enders Analysis. “That’s unfortunate because this is, at heart, a dispute over whether the BBC can impose its social media guidelines on a contractor.”

Mr. Lineker, 62, is no ordinary contractor, of course. He is perhaps the BBC’s biggest name, a beloved sports figure who made a smooth transition from the playing field to the broadcasting booth, where he has been a weekly fixture since 1999, analyzing games and shooting the breeze with other retired sports stars. He is the BBC’s highest-paid on-air personality, earning 1.35 million pounds ($1.6 million) in 2022.

But Mr. Lineker, who grew up in a working-class family in Leicester, has never kept his views on social issues a secret. When the government announced strict new immigration plans, he posted on Twitter, “This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order?”

Britain’s Home secretary, Suella Braverman, who is spearheading the policy to stop migrants from crossing the English Channel in small boats, said Mr. Lineker’s comments diminished the atrocities of the Holocaust. Other Conservative lawmakers said he had misused his BBC platform — not for the first time — to voice a political opinion.

“We need to make sure we maintain that trust in the independence and impartiality of the BBC,” the chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, said on Sunday to a BBC journalist, Laura Kuenssberg.

The BBC is not the only media organization to hit turbulence over questions about political expression and social media. Tensions have flared at British newspapers, as well as at The Washington Post and The New York Times, over the Twitter posts of journalists, sometimes critical of their own employers.

“This is a period of social change, where public attitudes toward the media and social media are rapidly evolving,” said Mark Thompson, a former director general of the BBC who was later the chief executive of The New York Times Company. “Editorial teams around the world are racing to catch up.”

What makes Mr. Lineker’s case especially complicated is both his job status — a contractor, not a full-time employee, who works for BBC Sports as opposed to BBC News — and the broadcaster’s enforcement of its social media guidelines, which critics say is haphazard at best and hypocritical at worst.

Alan Sugar, a British businessman who hosts the BBC’s version of the American reality TV show “The Apprentice,” has tweeted vociferously against a union leader who has pursued a confrontation with the government, as well as against a former leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, whom Mr. Lineker also criticized.

Mr. Lineker got into no apparent trouble with his bosses about that, or for speaking out on the air about human rights abuses in Qatar during his coverage of the World Cup soccer tournament there last year.

Critics say the double standard extends to programming. The BBC recently decided not to air an episode of a new series, “Wild Isles,” narrated by David Attenborough, the revered nature broadcaster. Ms. Enders said the BBC worried that the episode, which deals with threats to Britain’s environment and explores the concept of re-wilding, would draw fire from the political right. The BBC said that the episode was commissioned separately from the rest of the series and had never been destined for television, but that it would be available on its iPlayer streaming service.

The broadcaster is compromised in other ways, according to critics. The chairman of the BBC’s board, Richard Sharp, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker, is a donor to the Conservative Party who is being investigated for his role in the arrangement of a loan of £800,000 for Boris Johnson, the prime minister at the time Mr. Sharp was appointed.

Mr. Sharp has resisted calls to step down, but the questions about his ties to Mr. Johnson have made it hard for him to play the normal role of a chairman in a crisis, which would be to handle the government and opposition leaders, allowing the director general of the BBC, Tim Davie, to focus on the internal problems.

Mr. Davie, a former marketing executive who also had links to the Conservative Party, has come under fire for his handling of the dispute with Mr. Lineker. In an interview with the BBC, he apologized for the spiraling crisis, which forced the broadcaster to all but scrap two days of sports programming.

“This has been a tough time for the BBC,” Mr. Davie said. “Success for me is getting Gary back on air and together we are giving to the audiences that world-class sports coverage which, as I say, I’m sorry we haven’t been able to deliver today.”

Mr. Davie, who was appointed during the Johnson government, has made upholding the BBC’s political impartiality one of his major goals as director general. But he denied that the broadcaster was bowing to pressure from the government or Conservative politicians, and said he had no plans to resign.

Political rows between the government and the BBC date back almost to the broadcaster’s founding. It is not even the first time that the BBC, under Mr. Davie, has been accused of bending to pressure, though not always in the same direction.

In 2020, it was criticized by Mr. Johnson and other Tories for announcing it would strip lyrics from two well-known patriotic songs during an annual televised concert. The lyrics, some said, evoked a British colonial past and were at odds with the Black Lives Matter movement then sweeping the West. The BBC later reversed the decision.

Mr. Johnson never hesitated to put the BBC in the cross hairs. In 2021, his government leaped on the broadcaster after one of its hosts gently mocked a cabinet minister for appearing in an interview with a large Union Jack behind him. A few days later, the government decreed that the flag should fly on all government buildings every day of the year, rather than simply on designated days.

Rishi Sunak, the current prime minister, has shown less of an appetite for these battles. On Saturday, he said that “Gary Lineker was a great footballer and is a talented presenter,” and that he hoped the standoff could be settled. “It is rightly a matter for them, not the government,” he said of the BBC in a statement.

For Mr. Sunak, the furor may have had an unintended dividend — deflecting scrutiny of a policy that, while popular with his Conservative base, contains provisions that are likely to draw criticism on human rights grounds.

Howard Stringer, a friend of Mr. Davie’s and a former president of CBS who has also served on the BBC’s board, said he was cautiously optimistic that the broadcaster and its star commentator would come to terms. But he said the dispute showed that the BBC needed to learn how to deal with stars, likening it to the dust-ups he once had with Dan Rather, the outspoken former anchor of the CBS Evening News.

“That’s the thing about big talent,” Mr. Stringer said. “You have to know them and what they’re thinking, and you have to be able to talk them down.”

The bigger threat to the BBC, he said, would be if politicians or other critics seized on the dispute to reopen a debate over its taxpayer-funded business model and its role as a central, nonpartisan, presence in British public life.

“What the BBC has, sort of like the monarchy, is something the rest of the world rather admires,” Mr. Stringer said. “You toy with that at your peril.”

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