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Lineker scored a hat-trick after the BBC’s red card was rescinded


During his playing years as England football’s famed striker in the 1980s and 1990s, Gary Lineker was never warned off by a referee or sent off. It was only after his playing career that the BBC referees blew the whistle. As the world now knows, the star football pundit, host of the BBC’s flagship Match of the Day program and highest-paid personality, sat on the bench last week because he feared his tweet about the government’s new immigration law would undermine the commitment of would jeopardize the broadcaster’s impartiality. The sound that followed was the deafening roar of the football world flooding the pitch in support of Lineker.

After a weekend of curtailed programming and threats of resignation from other top hosts, the BBC announced on Monday that it will be putting Lineker back on the air. The Beeb apologized for “possible confusion caused by the gray areas” of its social media guidelines and will subject them to an independent review. So Lineker will return, along with his co-commentators Ian Wright and Alan Shearer (both had run away in solidarity with Lineker).

That comes as a relief to the fans. But it leaves a question mark for the BBC’s board. Rather than defending impartiality, the response exposed its guidelines as vague and their application as arbitrary. The existing guideline notes that individuals identifying with the company “have the potential to compromise the BBC’s impartiality and damage its reputation”. for example, a sports or science presenter expressing his opinion on politics or art.”

Lineker has always maintained his right to talk about matters he cares about. While broadcasting the World Cup, he invoked Qatar’s human rights record. If that made the BBC uncomfortable, they didn’t stop him. There’s no reason why sports or entertainment personalities shouldn’t have space to voice their opinions on issues that matter to them on their social media channels, even if it doesn’t suit the government of the day. Indeed, other great personalities from Brian Cox to David Attenborough have done so. Most people can distinguish between a sports pundit who expresses his opinion on an issue and a political presenter who does. Obviously there are limits, but the BBC should err on the side of freedom of expression.

The longer-term damage to the BBC has not come from one bad phone call, but the appearance of a double standard of integrity.

The selection of BBC chairman Richard Sharp (a generous donor to the Conservative Party in the past) is the subject of an investigation after he was found to have facilitated an £800,000 credit facility to his friend, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson. when Sharp was a candidate for the BBC job. Sharp has since clarified that he had suggested to a government official who could advise on the matter and was not himself involved in the granting or arranging of the loan. A report from the parliamentary panel concluded that Sharp had made “significant errors of judgement” and called on him to “think about the impact his failure to act will have on confidence in him, the BBC and the public nomination process.”

Still, many thought it suspicious that a broadcaster whose leadership has such Tory ties was cracking down on a sports pundit who criticized a Tory policy. The irony is that Johnson spent much of his tenure criticizing the BBC for bias in the other direction. The BBC’s job now is not just to straighten out where its impartiality guidelines apply, but to ensure that its own leadership is seen as unquestionable.

The whole saga is also inconvenient for the government, despite the free advertising the immigration law received. It is almost always counterproductive and wrong to invoke Nazi Germany to make a political point, as Lineker did in his tweet. Lineker’s broader point, however, was to note the dangerous rhetoric underlying a bill that would essentially make it illegal to seek asylum in Britain, and which, as the government admits, likely violates international law straight. Noting the “immeasurable brutality” of the bill, Lineker made a moral argument that even the Labor Party shrank from. Lineker is also not about to give up on the matter. simply cannot be compared to having to flee your home from persecution or war to seek refuge in a land far away,” he tweeted Monday. “It is heartwarming to see the empathy of so many of you for their plight. “

In a few steps, then, Lineker has exposed the flaws in the BBC’s governance, the cynicism underlying the government’s immigration policy and the hollowness of the Labor Party’s carefully crafted outrage – a hat-trick from an expert who knows how to score.


Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.