British soccer broadcaster Gary Lineker leaves his home, in London, Monday March 13, 2023. Lineker will return to airwaves after the BBC reversed the former soccer great's suspension on Monday following a post on Twitter that had criticized the British government’s new asylum policy. (James Manning/PA via AP)
LONDON (AP) — The BBC secured a draw on Monday in its showdown with Gary Lineker, reversing the former soccer great’s suspension from the airwaves for a tweet that criticized the U.K. government’s new migration policy.
The about-face followed a weekend of chaos and crisis for Britain’s publicly funded national broadcaster, which faced a huge backlash after sidelining one of its best-known hosts for expressing a political opinion.
“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,” BBC Director-General Tim Davie said.
Lineker said he was “glad that we have found a way forward.”
Lineker, one of English soccer’s most lauded players and the corporation’s highest-paid television presenter, was suspended Friday after he described the government’s plan to detain and deport migrants arriving by boat as “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”
The Conservative government called Lineker’s Nazi comparison offensive and unacceptable, and some lawmakers said the BBC should terminate his contract. The broadcaster said Friday that Lineker would be “stepping back” until he agreed to keep his tweets within BBC impartiality rules.
But critics accused it of suppressing free speech, and the BBC was forced to scrap much of its weekend sports programming after commentators, analysts and Premier League players refused to appear as a show of support for Lineker.
The flagship soccer show “Match of the Day” was reduced from the usual 90 minutes of highlights and analysis to a 20-minute compilation of clips from the day’s games, without commentary or punditry. Other TV and radio soccer shows were pulled from the schedule on Saturday and Sunday as the boycott spread.
Davie insisted Monday that the BBC “did the right thing” by suspending Lineker, but there would now be an independent review of the BBC’s social media rules to address “gray areas” in the guidelines.
“Between now and when the review reports, Gary will abide by the editorial guidelines,” he said.
The furor reflects the distinctive nature of U.K. media, where newspapers are highly opinionated and news broadcasters are required to be balanced — especially the publicly funded BBC, which has a duty to be impartial.
The crisis was a dramatic illustration of the pressures long faced by the 100-year-old BBC in an increasingly polarized political and media world. Those on the right often sense a leftist slant in the broadcaster’s news output, while some liberals accuse it of having a conservative bias.
Opposition politicians accuse the government of political meddling by pushing for Conservative-friendly bosses for the BBC. Davie is former Conservative local-government candidate. BBC chairman Richard Sharp is a Conservative Party donor who helped arrange a loan for then Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2021, weeks before Sharp was appointed to the BBC post on the government’s recommendation.
The Conservatives also periodically suggest changing the BBC’s funding model. It gets much of its money from a license fee paid by all households with a television.
The opposition Labour Party’s culture and media spokeswoman, Lucy Powell, said the Conservatives “have long wanted to undermine the BBC.”
“As well as a review of the BBC’s social media guidelines, this saga should prompt the government to examine how it protects and promotes a truly independent and impartial BBC,” she said.
As part of its commitment to impartiality, the BBC bars news staff from expressing political opinions.
Lineker, as a freelancer who doesn’t work in news or current affairs, isn’t bound by the same rules, and has sometimes pushed the boundaries of what the BBC considers acceptable. Last year, the BBC found that Lineker breached impartiality rules with a tweet about the Conservatives’ alleged Russian donations.
Davie said the BBC “has a commitment to impartiality in its Charter,” as well as a commitment to freedom of expression.
“That is a difficult balancing act to get right where people are subject to different contracts and on air positions, and with different audience and social media profiles,” he said.
Lineker said it had been “a surreal few days” and thanked colleagues for their support.
“A final thought: 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,” he tweeted. “It’s heartwarming to have seen the empathy towards their plight from so many of you.”
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