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BBC impartiality row: Gary Lineker is back, after broadcaster caves

BBC impartiality row: Gary Lineker is back, after broadcaster caves

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LONDON — The BBC apologized for the row over sports presenter Gary Lineker’s tweets and indicated he can return to hosting duties, following a days-long impartiality battle that disrupted the corporation’s flagship sporting coverage and incensed MPs.

In a statement Monday, Director General Tim Davie said the BBC looks “forward to [Lineker] presenting our coverage this coming weekend” and announced an independent review into its social media guidance. Already some Conservative MPs are unhappy with the outcome — while the opposition Labour Party are cheering it.

The BBC has spent much of the past week under fire over Lineker’s tweets and its response to them. The footballer-turned-presenter — one of its most recognizable stars — used Twitter to attack Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s immigration clampdown, likening the language used to sell it to “1930’s Germany.”

A host of Conservative MPs — including serving ministers — laid into Lineker. On Friday he was taken off hosting duties for flagship football program Match of the Day — a move that in itself triggered a walkout by other BBC employees and criticism from Labour.

Saturday’s Match of the Day was broadcast without any presenter, pundits or commentators after Lineker’s colleagues announced en masse they would boycott any show without him. Other sporting output was also canceled as reporters and commentators refused to work.

“Everyone recognizes this has been a difficult period for staff, contributors, presenters and, most importantly, our audiences. I apologise for this,” Davie said in the statement, as he announced that an independent expert will launch a review into the corporation’s social rules.

The BBC, he said, had a “commitment to impartiality,” but this 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.”

Davie added: “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.”

In his own accompanying statement, Lineker said he was “glad we have found a way forward.”

He added: “I support this review and look forward to getting back on air.”

In a series of tweets following the statement, Lineker said he was “immeasurably proud to work with the best and fairest broadcaster in the world.”

But he added that “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. It’s heartwarming to have seen the empathy towards their plight from so many of you.”

BBC Director General Tim Davie has announced an independent review into the corporation’s social media guidance | Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images

The BBC’s move to reinstate Lineker Monday has, however, already opened it up to fresh Tory criticism.

Conservative MP Tom Hunt — who had been among those urging Lineker himself to apologize — expressed disappointment that there had been no “acknowledgement of any wrongdoing” by the Match of the Day star.

And he predicted a “growing number” would call for an end to the BBC license fee — a compulsory levy that many households in the U.K. pay to fund the broadcaster, but which is controversial with some sections of the Conservative Party.

“Clearly the key thing will be what comes out of this social media review,” he told POLITICO. “But my concern is it will just be a whitewash and freelancers who are paid millions by the taxpayer and widely perceived to be BBC employees will be given free range.”

This would, he said, “do great damage to the BBC.”

Labour, which had earlier accused the BBC of caving to Conservative backbench pressure in taking him off air, welcomed Lineker’s planned return and said a review of the broadcaster’s social media rules was “clearly needed.”

But, Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell added, “much bigger questions remain about the impartiality and independence of the BBC from government pressures.”

Matt Honeycombe-Foster contributed reporting.

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