Gary Lineker tweet a technical breach, ex-BBC head sayson March 12, 2023 at 11:07 am

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But Mark Thompson says the star’s role as a sport’s presenter meant the row was in a grey area.

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An ex-BBC boss has said Gary Lineker’s criticism of the government’s new asylum bill appeared to be a “technical breach” of impartiality rules.

But ex-director general Mark Thompson told Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg that Lineker’s status as a sports presenter meant the row was a “grey area”.

The BBC must “strike the balance” when enforcing the rules, he added.

The BBC’s football output remains in chaos, with an unofficial staff boycott expected to continue on Sunday.

BBC News understands that BBC2’s planned coverage of the Women’s Super League clash between Chelsea and Manchester United will go ahead without pre-match presentation.

Match of the Day 2 will follow the main programme’s much-reduced format. On Saturday, Match of the Day was reduced to 20 minutes without presenters, pundits, or commentary.

Viewing figures were up by almost half a million to 2.58m.

Mr Thompson – who served as BBC director general between 2004 and 2012 – said that while rules around political opinions were clear for those working in BBC news, they were more complex for freelancers and those working in sport.

“I think what the BBC has walked into is the 21st Century,” Mr Thompson told the programme.

“New behaviours, new public attitudes, new understandable attitudes from individuals – for example a freelancer like Gary Lineker – therefore there is a need to think carefully about where to strike the balance.”

And he urged the BBC “to calm down, ignore the papers”, to chart a course forward, and to avoid “shooting from the hip” in a bid to resolve the row.

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BBC guideline: ‘Avoid taking sides on party political issues’

While appearing on the BBC’s Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg programme, ex-director general Mark Thompson read out the BBC’s impartiality guideline on “high profile” names. That guideline states:

“There are also others who are not journalists or involved in factual programming who nevertheless have an additional responsibility to the BBC because of their profile on the BBC.

“We expect these individuals to avoid taking sides on party political issues or political controversies and to take care when addressing public policy matters.”

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Peter Salmon, who was the corporation’s head of sport under Mr Thompson, said the BBC’s impartiality guidelines were “opaque” and urged bosses to “get this sorted out”.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt – who earlier said he “profoundly” disagreed with Lineker’s tweet – told the programme that he thought “making sure the BBC maintains its reputation for independence and impartiality is the outcome that matters most”.

But he declined to say whether he thought Lineker should remain as Match of the Day presenter.

On Saturday Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said resolving the row was a matter for the BBC, but Downing Street and several senior ministers have been critical in recent days.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer have both attacked the presenter for his comparison between the government’s language and Nazi Germany.

Ms Braverman said the “Germany in the 1930s” comparison used by Lineker was “lazy and unhelpful”.

Labour’s Shadow Chancellor Rachael Reeves said the BBC had “clearly come under immense pressure from the Conservative Party to take Gary Lineker off air”.

Meanwhile, uncertainty continues to swirl as to whether Linker will return to the BBC.

In the Sunday Mirror, Lineker’s son, George, is quoted as saying he thought his father would return to presenting Match of the Day, and director general Tim Davie said on Saturday his goal was to get “Gary back on air”.

The row erupted after Lineker was suspended for criticising the government’s language over its controversial new asylum policy.

Commenting on the Illegal Migration Bill on Tuesday, Lineker called it an “immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”.

Lineker’s suspension on Friday triggered a wider debate about BBC impartiality, the government’s asylum policy and the position of the broadcaster’s chairman Richard Sharp.

It also led to an unprecedented day of turmoil for the BBC’s sport operation, with staff including some of the most recognisable faces and voices choosing not to work.

Mr Davie apologised to licence fee payers for the chaos and admitted it had been a “difficult day” for the corporation but said “we are working very hard to resolve the situation”.

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