Gary Lineker may have famously managed to avoid being carded for foul play during a 16-year professional football career, but the latest politically loaded social media salvo from the BBC’s highest-paid presenter has the corporation’s director general seeing red.
Tim Davie, who may now be rueing the £6.75m deal to keep the former England star at the BBC until 2025 that was announced two weeks after he took over running the corporation, has made it his mission to rebuild a “fragile trust” with government by reining in perceived partiality on and off screen. To that end, an ultra-strict social media policy is now in force for news staff.
The problem Davie faces is an inability to control his biggest star – as a member of the sports department Lineker doesn’t have to automatically abide by the new rules.
The multimillionaire, who has more than 10 million social media followers, knows his brand is bigger than needing to fit a BBC plan to placate ministers. The royal charter expires in 2027, although negotiations are unlikely to begin in earnest until after the next general election.
“Lineker could disappear from the BBC tomorrow and still have a very lucrative career,” says the PR expert Mark Borkowski. “In that sense Gary Lineker is bigger than the BBC. How do you deal with someone with a huge following, who has displayed a social conscience, and has happily faced up to being considered Marmite to a lot of people on social media?”
Lineker’s tweets on topics such as Brexit have long been an issue for the BBC, attracting criticism from rightwing newspapers and Conservative MPs.
In October, he was publicly reprimanded by the BBC for breaking impartiality guidelines after he tweeted about the Conservative party taking money from Russian donors.
The BBC social media guidelines asks individuals “to avoid taking sides on party political issues or political controversies and to take care when addressing public policy matters”.
Unbowed by criticism from the prime minister down over his latest tweets – which compared the government’s immigration plans to policies in “Germany in the 30s” – Lineker doubled down on his comments by thanking supporters.
Davie’s challenge is complicated by the fact that some big voices have lined up behind Lineker. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former press secretary, said Lineker was “pointing out the kind of facts the BBC should be pointing out relentlessly about the scale of a problem being exploited for populist polarising reasons”.
The former Sky presenter Adam Boulton tweeted that because Lineker is not a political reporter he should be allowed to tweet his views, saying the BBC does not censure comments made by actors in its shows.
Emily Maitlis, the former Newsnight presenter, wrote in a tweet that the corporation were fine with Lineker raising questions about Qatar’s human rights record during the World Cup.
“The BBC struggles to get a backbone at these times because unlike other broadcasters they are owned by everybody, and with that comes unrelenting pressure,” says Borkowski.
It has also been suggested that Lineker’s penchant for getting in hot water with his employer could help the presenter make his case against a £4.9m tax bill. Lineker is involved in a long-running legal case over whether he owes substantial back taxes relating to whether he should be classed as a freelance worker for the BBC and BT Sport for his work during the mid-2010s.
One legal expert has argued it might be helpful if Lineker were able to prove he was a true freelance worker who had control of his work life, unshackled by employer rules. However, Lineker’s brazen approach cannot continue indefinitely, others advise.
“Lineker probably has three strikes at the BBC, and assuming they reprimand him this time he will be on his final warning,” says Borkowski. “But the BBC will probably have to suck it up as he doesn’t need them. With the fierce competition in TV and streaming, the BBC do need him, for the time being at least.”