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Gary Lineker to return to Match of the Day, makes no apology and tweets about small boats again

The Independent logo The Independent 13/03/2023 Adam Forrest and Thomas Kingsley
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Gary Lineker will return to his Match of the Day presenting duties after the BBC apologised for suspending him in an impartiality row that has rocked the corporation.

Lineker got to keep his job but made no apology for his tweet comparing the language used to launch a small boats asylum policy with that used in 1930s Germany – and tweeted again about the plight of refugees within minutes of being reinstated.

Confirming Lineker's return, BBC director general Tim Davie said he recognised “the potential confusion caused by the grey areas of the BBC’s social media guidance” and said the presenter “will abide by the editorial guidelines” until an independent review of the BBC’s social media policy is complete. The BBC denied there had been a climbdown.

In his statement on Monday, Mr Davie 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.”

But Mr Davie insisted he did “the right thing” in asking Lineker to step back from presenting duties and said he “respects the views” of the presenters and pundits who walked out in solidarity with the former England striker.

It comes as:

• Sir Keir Starmer said Richard Sharp, the BBC chair, should step down as he too remains under investigation over impartiality

• Conservative MPs hit out at the corporation for backing down

• Senior Tories are lined-up against Rishi Sunak to oppose his small boats bill

The BBC board said it welcomed the agreement between Lineker and the broadcaster and said it was “the right time” to review its social media guidelines.

Gary Lineker smiles as he leaves his home following the announcement he would return to the BBC (PA) © Provided by The Independent Gary Lineker smiles as he leaves his home following the announcement he would return to the BBC (PA)

Breaking his silence, Lineker thanked his supporters, describing the past few days as “surreal” – but he was soon tweeting again about small boats.

He wrote: “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.”

Lineker has hosted Match of the Day since 1999 and earned about £1.35m in 2020-21, making him the BBC’s highest paid star.

It comes as furious Tory MPs expressed outrage at the broadcaster's U-turn and said the move to reinstate the presenter gave Lineker “carte blanche” to say what he wanted.

Craig Mackinlay, MP for South Thanet, told The Independent: “The BBC climbdown with an apology and carte blanche to do as he pleases on social media is remarkable.”

He added: “His 8 million Twitter following is on the back of his ongoing celebrity due to his BBC contract – he can now seemingly push his highly political anti-government agenda and cause offence to many with impunity. I know of no other employer who would permit this.”

Tim Davie apologised to Gary Lineker but Tory MPs called the move a capitulation to the star (PA Archive) © Provided by The Independent Tim Davie apologised to Gary Lineker but Tory MPs called the move a capitulation to the star (PA Archive)

Philip Davies, MP for Shipley, told The Independent that the “pathetic capitulation” would hasten the end of the licence fee. “The BBC can no longer credibly claim it believes in political impartiality, and – more importantly – it has proved it doesn’t have the stomach to enforce it.”

He added: “His epitaph will read ‘Gary Lineker – the man who destroyed the BBC licence fee’. This is a watershed moment.”

And Tory MP David Jones said: “This says more about the weakness of the director general”, arguing Lineker’s reinstatement without “an enforceable undertaking not to engage in political tweeting again” would let down licence fee payers.

The trio and a few dozen other Tory MPs in the Common Sense Group have signed a letter demanding an apology from Lineker and the BBC – urging the corporation “not to fold” on his suspension.

Lucy Powell, Labour’s shadow culture secretary, said the return of Lineker was welcome, but “much bigger questions remain about the impartiality and independence of the BBC from government pressures”.

The row has also put mounting pressure on the BBC over the position of its chair Richard Sharp, who is himself being investigated over impartiality after it emerged he had helped former prime minister Boris Johnson secure an £800,000 loan.

Sir Keir Starmer said on Monday that Mr Sharp's position was “increasingly untenable”.

The BBC now faces pressure for chair Richard Sharp to resign (PA) © Provided by The Independent The BBC now faces pressure for chair Richard Sharp to resign (PA)

“I think most people watching the complete mess of the last few days would say how on earth is he still in position and Gary Lineker has been taken off air?

“This is a mess of the BBC’s own making, they need to sort it out and sort it out fast,” Sir Keir said.

Roger Bolton, an ex-senior executive at the BBC, is among several former top corporation figures to call for chairman Richard Sharp to resign since he could no longer oversee questions of impartiality.

Mr Bolton told The Independent: “Who is going to carry out the review? It will be the BBC board that decides on whether to act on its recommendations, and chairman Richard Sharp is the most important figure on the board.”

The media expert added: “Can you have someone in charge who is not seen as impartial by many people? How can he stay? In the biggest crises for the BBC for the last few years he could not fulfil his role. He should make way.”

As the investigation undertaken into his appointment continues, the prime minister refused to explicitly back the chair.

Mr Sunak has distanced himself from the row over Lineker saying the issue was not a matter for the government, but on Monday said he was “pleased” the dispute had been resolved.

However, the prime minister has been unable to sidestep opposition to his new immigration policy, which has prompted backlash from some within his own party.

Tory MPs are set to rebel against Rishi Sunak’s new immigration bill (AP) © Provided by The Independent Tory MPs are set to rebel against Rishi Sunak’s new immigration bill (AP)

Caroline Nokes was the first senior Tory to say she would vote against the new law, arguing that the plans – which would see all those who arrive on small boats detained in immigration centres – were an “absolute horror”.

Ms Nokes told Times Radio: “I can’t vote for this. I might be an outlier in my party, but I think we have an absolute duty to treat people humanely, to keep people safe. I have absolute horror at the prospect.”

Tory MP Chris Skidmore later said he would not vote for the bill when it goes to the Commons for its second reading on Monday. “I am not prepared to break international law or the human rights conventions that the UK has had a proud history of playing a leading role in establishing,” he tweeted.

Former Tory justice secretary Robert Buckland suggested that he would support the bill, despite his unease at the plans but warned of a Tory rebellion ahead with major changes needed.

Senior Tory Tobias Ellwood, chair of the defence select committee, told The Independent that MPs would want to amend the bill “so our international obligations on prevention of child detention are met”, adding: “Without these changes, I suspect the bill will not pass through parliament.”

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