BBC Gary Lineker PR

Member Insights: Lineker social media storm shows BBC lack of communication planning

April 6, 2023

David Alexander, MD of Calacus PR, looks back at the Gary Lineker Twitter storm and the PR nightmare that it caused for the BBC.

The BBC has been one of Britain’s crown jewels for more than a century, revered around the world for its reporting and wider content creation.

In the past decade, that status has been eroded by a succession of cuts and curtailments that have compromised its editorial independence and integrity.

A consequence of that is that so much top talent has walked out of the door, and who can blame them when senior executives, many with links to the government’s Conservative Party, affect its impartiality, ignoring some of the major stories or viewpoints?

When the government introduced a new Bill aimed at curtailing migrants coming to Britain, there was plenty of outrage from opposition politicians and even the United Nations, with Home Secretary Suella Braverman “pushing the boundaries” of what is lawful.

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Gary Lineker, the former England international striker now as well known for his presenting of sports shows including Match of the Day, Lineker, who has taken in refugees himself, was expressed his outrage at the language used by politicians promoting the Bill and tweeted: “There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. 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 I’m out of order?”

While the Bill was controversial, Lineker immediately became the story, infuriating right-wing pundits who in one breath proclaim the right to free speech and accuse the left of being snowflakes and then complain when a sports presenter shows concern for the tone of Ministerial comments.

He later tweeted: “Great to see the freedom of speech champions out in force this morning demanding silence from those with whom they disagree.”

The outrage, which included condemnation from the home secretary for the analogy with 30s Germany and front page editorials criticising his apparent abuse of position, centred on whether Lineker should adhere to the BBC’s strict adherence to neutrality from its presenters.

The outrage falls down because Lineker is a freelance presenter whose work never relates to hard news – while he was permitted to open the BBC’s coverage of the FIFA World Cup in Qatar last year with a monologue referencing the host nation’s poor human-rights record.

Other presenters with far stronger political links, be that the chairman of the Spectator Andrew Neil or Alan Sugar, who is an active member of the House of Lords, have made far more disparaging comments related to their political opponents without censure or controversy and yet Lineker was singled out.

The focus on Lineker does raise questions about what makes news and what matters in the big scheme of things, particularly with a war taking place almost on our doorstep and the cost of living crisis affecting millions of households.

But it is also a reminder that sport, and those working within it, has a voice that transcends society and can be a valuable platform for positive change.

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The BBC did not help itself when, amid the furore, it initially announced its disapproval of his comments and then said that Lineker was stepping back from his duties presenting Match of the Day – when it later transpired that Lineker had been suspended.

The episode raises questions about the true nature of the BBC’s impartiality; the direction and conduct of some of its senior executives; and the lack of clarity over its social media policies.

In the chaotic few hours after the news that Lineker was suspended, fellow Match of the Day presenters including Ian Wright and Alan Shearer alongside other commentators and presenters working on BBC sports output withdrew, leaving a skeleton service that resulted in the flagship football show reduced to limited highlights.

As has been the case with this government in the past, there is a discomfort about sports people, and footballers in particular, from getting involved in societal issues.

There has long been a debate about whether sport and politics should mix, but given that so many athletes come from deprived and often multi-cultural backgrounds, is it any wonder that they comment or take action to support those less fortunate than themselves?

We have seen in recent times how Marcus Rashford demanded more support for hungry children which resulted in a government climbdown while England players also took the knee to highlight racism and a lack of civil rights across the world despite criticism from some of the government’s most prominent members.

No wonder several players were prepared to boycott BBC Sport’s interviews as well.

British prime Minister Rishi Sunak, whose government had prompted the original Lineker tweet, issued a statement distancing himself from the furore.

Even Piers Morgan, whose views rarely align with Lineker’s, issues a defence in a column, saying: “Of all the objections to Lineker’s remarks, the one that I find most ridiculous is that he shouldn’t be allowed to express an opinion at all because he is one of the biggest faces of BBC Sport.

“I get that the BBC has strict impartiality rules for its news and current affairs presenters, because they read or report on the news and a taxpayer-funded national broadcaster should remain scrupulously neutral in those areas. But no offence to Gary, who cares what an ex- footballer says about news or politics on his Twitter feed?”

Conversely, Matthew Syed, who writes about sport and current affairs for The Times as well as being a former Olympian, tweeted: “This isn’t about Lineker’s politics; it’s about him consistently violating his own agreement on impartiality. It makes a mockery of the entire system.”

The fact that the story dominated the news agenda for three or more days speaks volumes
about the culture war taking place in Britain.

Lineker is often criticised for his sizeable BBC salary despite his popularity and excellence in his role – and having a successful production company and a brief sojourn with BT Sport covering the Champions League, there was a sense that the BBC needs Lineker more than he does them.

No wonder, then, that on the Monday after the weekend of self-inflicted drama, Lineker was reinstated.

BBC Director-General Tim Davie, whose own position was under threat and whose integrity
had been questioned because of his former links with the Conservative Party, said: “Everyone recognises this has been a difficult period for staff, contributors, presenters and, most importantly, our audiences. I apologise for this.

“The potential confusion caused by the grey areas of the BBC’s social media guidance that was introduced in 2020 is recognised. I want to get matters resolved and our sport content back on air.

“Impartiality is important to the BBC. It is also important to the public. The BBC has a commitment to impartiality in its Charter and 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. The BBC’s social media guidance is designed to help manage these sometimes difficult challenges and I am aware there is a need to ensure that the guidance is up to this task. It should be clear, proportionate, and appropriate.”

The statement went on to announce an independent review to look into the BBC’s social media guidance.

And that gets to the heart of the problem for the BBC and for other organisations who wait to react to a crisis once it happens, rather than taking preparatory action in advance.

Clear systems and processes, including robust social media guidelines, consistently adopted, would have helped to avoid this unsavoury episode and underlined the brewing challenges the BBC faces to re-establish itself as an impartial and well-run British institution.

Dame Melanie Dawes, the chief executive of broadcast regulator Ofcom, told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee that the row goes “straight to the heart” of the BBC’s wider reputation “weighing freedom of expression alongside the wide reputation they (the BBC) have for impartiality.”

The failings of senior executives turned a minor story into one which became headline news around the world.

It also underlined a complete failure to grasp the impact that social media can have when Lineker’s supporters used their voices to amplify their solidarity for Lineker.

The hashtag #IStandWithGary went viral with nothing from the BBC to counter the criticism of their stance.

Davie denied his deal with Lineker was a “climbdown,” adding: “I’ve always said we needed to take proportionate action. For some people, by the way, we’ve taken too severe action… others think we’re being too lenient.”

But Davie appeared to have had no clear plan on how to deal with the problems of his own making, further undermining his authority as well as the reputation of the BBC.

Had he and his team identified what success would look like once the decision had been taken to suspend Lineker in the first place?

Did they ever have control of the story, to any degree? Did the entire sorry episode just further undermine the waning reputation of the BBC amid reasonable accusations of inconsistency, a lack of transparency and a real crisis of leadership?

BBC Gary Lineker PR