It takes a lot to shake the BBC. Established 101 years ago to inform, educate, and entertain the people of Britain in equal measure, the national broadcaster has in its time weathered World Wars and catastrophe. It has held its own against commercial rivals, political challenges, home video, streaming, and Boris Johnson. It is as beloved an institution as the United Kingdom has. And yet, just over a week ago, it all but collapsed under the weight of a single tweet.
The tweet was written by Gary Lineker, the host of the BBC’s weekly Premier League soccer-highlights show, Match of the Day, and concerned a video made by Suella Braverman, the country’s home secretary. In the video, Braverman explained the government’s new policy of targeting refugees who cross the English Channel seeking asylum by sending them to Rwanda, introducing the Trump-esque slogan “Stop the boats.” In response, on Tuesday, March 7, Lineker tweeted, “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 this, believe it or not, was enough to set the whole corporation aflame.
A number of Conservative M.P.’s took issue with the sentiment of Lineker’s tweet. The BBC urged Lineker to apologize. Lineker refused. Usually, this would have been enough. The storm would die down, the news cycle would clatter on to some new noisy distraction, and everything would return to something resembling normal in a matter of days.
However, this time the BBC’s director general, Tim Davie, responded by waiting until Friday, March 10, to formally reprimand Lineker, forcing him to “step back” from hosting Match of the Day. And this didn’t so much open a can of worms as splatter a two-foot layer of worms over a 100-mile radius. To fully understand why, perhaps it would be wise to put Lineker into proper historical context.
The BBC urged Lineker to apologize. Lineker refused.
A former professional soccer player, Lineker has enjoyed national-treasure status for close to half a century. Regardless of the league he played in, Lineker became its top scorer on four separate occasions. He won the Golden Boot (the award given to the highest goal scorer) in the 1986 World Cup. Four years later he led England to its best World Cup result since 1966 despite succumbing to an embarrassing bout of diarrhea during one early match. Plus, there’s the fact that, over the course of his entire playing career, Lineker didn’t receive a single red or yellow card for misconduct. The man could basically walk on water.
Somehow, when his athletic career ended, Lineker found himself vaulting to even greater successes, quickly becoming the BBC’s most visible sports journalist—covering World Cups and Olympic Games as well as hosting the weekly Match of the Day—and the entire corporation’s highest-paid anchor, taking home $1.63 million annually, albeit one who works for the BBC as a contracted freelancer rather than as a full-blown employee. At this stage, Lineker is unstoppable. You would have to be either incredibly confident or spectacularly inept to go up against him.
Within seconds of reprimanding Lineker, Davie outed himself as the latter. The outcry in support of Lineker was deafening. Davie claims to have been acting under the banner of “impartiality,” the deliberately neutral watchword that has kept the BBC out of petty squabbles like this for a century. By expressing a political opinion, Davie claimed, Lineker had breached the corporation’s impartiality guidelines. But it was a flimsy charge at best.
Tweets quickly surfaced that Alan Sugar, the savvy and self-made-millionaire host of Britain’s version of The Apprentice (which also airs on the BBC), had posted in 2018. They showed the former opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn Photoshopped next to Adolf Hitler, and had been circulated without reprimand. Others wondered where to draw the line. The BBC’s former incendiary political interviewer, Andrew Neil, is chairman of the right-leaning magazine The Spectator. Ian Hislop, a man who has spent the last three decades as a mainstay of the political panel show Have I Got News for You, is also editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye. Should they hide their ideologies and be impartial? What about actors? Do they need to stop sending politically minded tweets when they have a show on the BBC?
Most of all, it was pointed out that it was hard for Davie to preach about impartiality when the BBC’s own chairman, Richard Sharp, is currently being investigated for donating $482,000 to the Conservative Party, and allegedly helping to facilitate an approximately $965,000 loan to Boris Johnson, weeks before Johnson’s government handed him the job. Whatever Johnson suddenly found so appealing about Sharp, incidentally, it certainly wasn’t his résumé; his career has included six years at JPMorgan Chase, 22 years at Goldman Sachs, and zero years running any broadcast-television companies.
And everyone, it turns out, was Team Lineker. After his reprimand, the D.J. Fatboy Slim flashed a portrait of Lineker on a screen during a concert, and it was met by rapturous applause. The singer Self Esteem recently performed in London wearing a makeshift Free Gary T-shirt. When Lineker attended a soccer match the day after stepping back from Match of the Day, the entire stadium cheered in support of him.
What about actors? Do they need to stop sending politically minded tweets when they have a show on the BBC?
Then there are his colleagues. Ian Wright, another beloved former player now employed as a pundit alongside Lineker, tweeted that he wouldn’t appear on the show without his co-anchor. Alan Shearer, another counterpart, tweeted the same. Commentators from other BBC sports shows announced that they would also sit out until Lineker was reinstated.
At first, the BBC reacted by suggesting that Match of the Day would continue without analysis. Then a number of soccer players declared that they would not appear for post-match interviews unless Lineker was reinstated. Then the BBC suggested that Match of the Day would be a simple compilation of match highlights with BBC commentary. Then the BBC commentators went on strike. There was the idea that the show would go on with generic Premier League commentary, but the BBC quickly learned that it didn’t have the rights to it.
In the end, Saturday’s Match of the Day, a show that often lasts upward of 90 minutes, was over and done within less than 20. There was no theme tune, no studio, no words spoken at all; just a haunting procession of disembodied clips.
The mess comes at a crucial moment for the BBC. A large, slow-moving beast at the best of times, the broadcaster currently finds itself fighting on three fronts. There’s Lineker and Sharp, but just this week around 1,000 unionized employees walked out, protesting plans to drastically reduce local programming. It’s the company’s biggest strike in 13 years. As a result, the BBC wasn’t able to give adequate coverage to the government’s new budget announcement, but worse could be yet to come. If an agreement isn’t reached soon, the next strike is planned on the King’s coronation day.
Nor is Lineker the only BBC star currently ensnared in an impartiality row. On a recent episode of the political debate show Question Time, a discussion about Stanley Johnson—Boris Johnson’s father and a current nominee for a knighthood, thanks to his son—prompted a conversation on domestic violence. A guest panelist recalled that Stanley had reportedly once punched his wife in the face, breaking her nose. To which the show’s host, Fiona Bruce, responded (as per her requirement to “legally contextualize” the allegation), “Stanley Johnson has not commented publicly on that. Friends of his have said it did happen, it was a one-off.” Victims of domestic assault said the disclaimer trivialized the accusation, and the outcry grew so loud that Bruce has since stepped down as an ambassador for the domestic-violence charity Refuge, a role she held for more than 25 years.
The BBC has never been very good when it finds itself at the center of the news—during one bulletin last weekend, a BBC news anchor announced that BBC News had approached the BBC for comment on the matter, but the BBC didn’t respond. On Monday, with a real sense that the BBC’s director general and chairman could both be forced to resign, a truce was finally brokered. Tonight, Lineker will return to Match of the Day. The corporation’s social-media policy will be reviewed, but now that the BBC has lost all leverage, the outcome is likely to be that the former England soccer captain can tweet whatever he likes.
At long last, everything can lighten up. But at least the people of Britain have sent a clear message to their leaders. You can remove us from Europe. You can dump sewage into our rivers. But don’t you dare even think about being horrible to Gary Lineker.
Stuart Heritage is a Kent, U.K.–based Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the author of Bedtime Stories for Worried Liberals