BBC executives are increasingly confident they will find a way to hold on to Gary Lineker, the corporation’s star sports presenter who was taken off air after breaching impartiality rules, as pressure grew on chair Richard Sharp to resign.
Lineker, a former striker in the England men’s team and presenter of Match of the Day, was suspended on Friday after tweeting criticism of the government’s proposed legislation aimed at stopping migrants coming to Britain in small boats.
The BBC was plunged into crisis as its weekend sports coverage on television and radio, including Match of the Day, the flagship football programme presented by Lineker, was either radically cut back or cancelled because pundits and commentators walked out in solidarity with Lineker.
Opposition parties accused the BBC of bowing to pressure from ministers and Tory MPs to take action against Lineker.
Labour questioned whether Sharp, a Conservative donor, could continue as BBC chair because of doubts about whether he could be an independent arbiter on political bias.
The BBC is keen to keep Lineker, despite it concluding that he had breached its guidance on use of social media with his comments about the government’s policy for dealing with asylum seekers.
Speaking to the BBC in Washington on Saturday, BBC director-general Tim Davie said: “We want to make sure that he can come back on air. I am really focused on getting to a solution.”
Davie, who was appointed BBC director-general in 2020, has made ensuring the corporation’s journalists abide by “due impartiality” guidance a key tenet of his role and introduced requirements on the use of social media.
One widely touted solution to the Lineker crisis would be to loosen the guidance for people working outside news and current affairs.
Davie said on Saturday: “I want to reflect on those guidelines. I am in listening mode.”
There are already lower impartiality requirements on BBC staff who work outside news.
But some contributors, including Lineker, have “an additional responsibility to the BBC because of their profile on the BBC”, according to the corporation’s guidance.
Mark Thompson, who was director-general from 2004 to 2012, told the BBC on Sunday that Lineker, who is also employed as a freelance contributor, had committed a “technical breach . . . No one thinks this is the same as . . . Huw Edwards [the BBC news presenter] doing it . . . Tim Davie will want to have a look at that guideline [on high-profile presenters]”.
BBC insiders said, however, that the other handful of presenters with the same profile as Lineker, such as Graham Norton, have not made similar interventions.
“We can’t rewrite the rule book around one person”, said one senior BBC manager. Another added: “If we give free rein [to people outside news] . . . we’ll just have more rows.”
The corporation faces some time pressure in resolving the Lineker saga because next weekend is the quarterfinal of the FA Cup, when the BBC has a relative rarity: the rights to broadcast two live matches involving a Premier League team. Lineker would be expected to present one of the matches.
The BBC has been approached for comment.
Davie has rejected claims that Lineker was taken off air because of pressure from the government.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt declined to support Lineker’s suspension, telling Sky News: “I think it’s important that we let the BBC sort out these problems.”
Meanwhile, Sharp, who was Rishi Sunak’s former boss at Goldman Sachs, faced increasing pressure to step down.
Lucy Powell, Labour’s culture spokesperson, said Sharp cannot currently “be seen as a fair referee”. The Liberal Democrats have said he should resign.
The Sunday Times reported in January that Sharp helped Johnson secure a guarantee on a loan shortly before the then prime minister recommended his appointment as BBC chair.
The Whitehall appointments watchdog launched an investigation. Sharp has denied any wrongdoing, saying he “simply connected” Johnson to the guarantor of a personal credit facility worth up to £800,000.
Additional reporting by Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe