The BBC’s decision to take Gary Lineker off air leaves its most outspoken personality with a potentially career-defining decision, as the corporation looks to risk its reputation to make a public example of one of its biggest stars.
Lineker’s politically loaded tweets about the government’s new asylum policy – followed by a pledge to stand by his comments – had left the BBC in an almost impossible position, balancing impartiality with freedom of expression by its staff.
The BBC, which has tried to rebuild a “fragile trust” with the government, reining in perceived partiality on and off screen by implementing an ultra-strict social media policy for news staff, has been put under pressure by Conservative ministers to make an example of Lineker.
However, the Match of the Day presenter has received support from big voices including Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former press secretary, the former Sky News presenter Adam Boulton, ex-Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis and Piers Morgan.
Supporters viewed the decision to remove Lineker from Match of the Day as capitulating to political pressure, which weakens its independence, at a time when its chair, the former Tory donor Richard Sharp, is under investigation over allegations he helped engineer a loan for Boris Johnson.
Strictly speaking, Lineker’s official status as a freelance employee and member of the sport department means he is not governed by the same social media rules that the director general, Tim Davie, introduced to keep the views of news staff in check.
The BBC has struggled with the outspoken Lineker. Last year he was publicly reprimanded for breaking impartiality guidelines after he tweeted about the Conservative party taking money from Russian donors, but no action was taken when he questioned Qatar’s human rights record during the World Cup.
Lineker had felt he had ridden out the worst of the furore over his latest posts, saying on Thursday that he was looking forward to presenting Match of the Day on Saturday, while at the same time BBC insiders were saying the situation was far from resolved.
The corporation has said Lineker will not be allowed to return to presenting until it has an “agreed and clear position” on his use of social media. Lineker, who has more than 10 million social media followers, faces a dilemma. One observer has said he has to decide between the BBC and being a social media influencer.
The multimillionaire, the corporation’s highest-paid presenter on a £6.75m deal that runs until 2025, does not need the profile or income the BBC role affords him.
“This is now social conscience stuff,” says the PR expert Mark Borkowski. “Does he stay true to the Lineker brand? If he agrees to being muzzled then he severely damages his brand.”
For the BBC, the removal of Lineker is not proving to be a step towards resolving the furore. In a show of solidarity, the pundits Ian Wright and Alan Shearer tweeted on Friday that they would not be appearing on Match of the Day on Saturday.
“The BBC are damned if they do and damned if they don’t on this one,” said Borkowski. “The BBC is going to be seen to score an own goal on this one, by one side or other, no matter what they do.”