The BBC has resolved a dispute with sportscaster Gary Lineker that had caused a staff mutiny and sparked a debate about the balance between free speech and the broadcaster’s guidelines on impartiality.
BBC director-general Tim Davie announced Monday that he had reached an agreement with Mr. Lineker to end a standoff over comments he made on Twitter last week that criticized the government’s crackdown on illegal immigration. The deal will see Mr. Lineker return to hosting the BBC’s flagship Match of the Day soccer program on Saturday while the corporation reviews its social-media requirements for staff.
“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,” Mr. Davie said. “Impartiality is important to the BBC. It is also important to the public. The BBC has a commitment to impartiality in its charter and a commitment to freedom of expression.”
Mr. Davie said the corporation will appoint an independent expert to review its social-media guidelines and how they should apply to freelancers such as Mr. Lineker who work outside the news and current affairs departments. He added that Mr. Lineker had agreed to abide by the current rules while the review takes place.
In a series of tweets, Mr. Lineker welcomed the agreement and thanked the public for its support. “After a surreal few days, I’m delighted that we have navigated a way through this,” he said.
But in an indication that he will continue to speak out on issues, he added: “However difficult the last few days have been, it simply doesn’t compare to having to flee your home from persecution or war to seek refuge in a land far away. It’s heartwarming to have seen the empathy towards their plight from so many of you.”
Mr. Lineker, 62, is no ordinary television host. He was a star soccer player in England, Spain and Japan and a standout with England’s national team. He has led the BBC’s soccer coverage since 1999 and is the corporation’s highest-paid on-air personality; he earned £1.35-million ($2.25-million) last year. He has also become well-known for sharing his thoughts on issues beyond sports with his 8.8 million Twitter followers.
The current controversy started last Tuesday when he compared the government’s immigration measures, which include more detentions and deportations, to those of Nazi Germany. That prompted a rebuke from several cabinet ministers and Conservative MPs.
On Friday, BBC managers suspended Mr. Lineker for violating the broadcaster’s social-media guidelines. That led to charges the BBC was caving to government pressure and limiting free speech. Dozens of hosts, pundits and other on-air personalities walked off the job in support of Mr. Lineker, forcing the BBC to cancel or scale back hours of sports programming last weekend.
Monday’s truce has left several Conservative backbenchers furious. Some have called on the government to end the BBC’s current funding model, which is based largely on an annual licence fee paid by viewers.
“This pathetic capitulation by the BBC is the start of the end for the licence fee,” Tory MP Philip Davies told the Daily Mail.
However, Labour MP Lucy Powell said the saga “should prompt the government to examine how it protects and promotes a truly independent and impartial BBC.”
The broadcaster is facing another crisis over impartiality – one involving its chair, Richard Sharp, who was appointed by former prime minister Boris Johnson in 2021.
Mr. Sharp is facing calls to resign after revelations he helped arrange a loan facility of as much as £800,000 ($1.3-million) for Mr. Johnson in 2020. Mr. Sharp has denied a conflict of interest and said he simply facilitated the loan. But critics say that, given the heavy-handed treatment of Mr. Lineker for breaching impartiality rules, Mr. Sharp should stand down.
“I think Richard Sharp’s position is increasingly untenable,” Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer told ITV News on Monday. “I think most people watching the complete mess of the last few days would say: How on Earth is he still in position and Gary Lineker has been taken off air?”
Mr. Sharp can only be removed by the Prime Minister. On Monday, a spokesman for Downing Street said the chair’s appointment was under review by the Office for Commissioner for Public Appointments. It’s not clear when the agency will report its findings.