Suspension of star presenter Gary Lineker sparks storm over BBC ‘impartiality’


Gary Lineker (right) and Alan Shearer, two now former BBC presenters, in Newcastle (England), June 28, 2020.

Can you work at the BBC and express a political opinion? Very proud of its impartiality, enshrined in its “royal charter” since 1927, the British public radio and television group has always given firm instructions to its journalists not to take a public position. It prohibits journalists from expressing on social networks “a personal opinion on public policy, politics and controversial topics”. And this rule apparently also applies to a sports presenter.

This is what Gary Lineker is learning the hard way. The former England football team striker, star presenter of the show Game of the Day, which summarizes the days of the English championship, was suspended from office on Friday March 10. The man with 8.7 million Twitter followers had railed against the immigration law introduced on Tuesday by the British government. This provides that all migrants entering the United Kingdom illegally will be deported automatically within one month of their arrival, without exception.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, this measure, if it comes into force, would “a clear violation of the refugee convention” of 1951. On Twitter, Mr. Lineker spoke “of an immensely cruel policy against the most vulnerable, in a language not so different from that used in Germany in the 1930s”.

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The message caused a political tornado, with the British government seizing on it to attack the BBC. The case made headlines in the right-wing press, especially the DailyMail. The BBC itself opened its own evening news with this controversy. Finally, after a defiant response from Mr. Lineker, (“I will continue to speak for these poor people who have no voice”), the management of the Corporation cracked down on Friday evening. Without dismissing him, she suspends the presenter “until we find a clear position on his use of social networks”. In solidarity, the co-presenters of Game of the DayAlan Shearer and Ian Wright, also ex-professional footballers, have announced that they are stepping down from the show for the time being.

Internal growl

The affair would have had less resonance if it had not followed years of internal discontent at the BBC against the permanent pressure exerted by the various Conservative governments in power since 2010. The president of the Corporation, Richard Sharp, is a donor to the Conservative Party, appointed by Boris Johnson in January 2021. Admittedly, his role does not lead him to deal with the editorial – he chairs the supervisory board, not the daily management of the Corporation -, but his appointment has provoked a storm. This escalated in violence when it was revealed last month that Mr Sharp helped Boris Johnson secure a personal loan when he was prime minister (a charge he denies).

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