Saturday, 25 Mar 2023

BBC Ends Suspension of Top Sports Host After Staff Mutiny

The BBC announced on Monday that it had reached an agreement with Gary Lineker, a star sports personality, that will allow him to return to hosting its flagship soccer program, “Match of the Day.”

The move defuses a crisis that began with a politically charged post that Mr. Lineker posted on Twitter last week about the British government’s immigration policy and escalated into a staff mutiny that threatened the BBC’s reputation and stability.

“Gary is a valued part of the BBC and I know how much the BBC means to Gary, and I look forward to him presenting our coverage this coming weekend,” Tim Davie, the broadcaster’s director general, said in a statement.

Mr. Davie said the BBC would launch an independent review into its social media guidelines.

In a Twitter post, Mr. Lineker said, “After a surreal few days, I’m delighted that we have navigated a way through this.” He also thanked his colleagues at the network who had supported him.

Mr. Lineker’s standoff with the BBC had set off a noisy national debate about 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 Saturday.

The BBC struggled over the weekend to work out a compromise with Mr. Lineker that would put him back on the air, after days of controversy about 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 the 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, about $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 to cut down on asylum seekers, 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?”

The British home secretary, Suella Braverman, who is spearheading the policy to stop migrants from crossing the English Channel in small boats, said that Mr. Lineker’s comments diminished the atrocities of the Holocaust. Other Conservative lawmakers said that 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 — he is 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 has 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.

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 over the weekend, 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.

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