Gary Lineker pictured on Sunday as he walked his dog. The presenter has said he will not apologise for his tweet, which compared the language used around migration to that in 1930s Germany. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters
Pressure on BBC chair mounts over Gary Lineker suspension
BBC executives are scrambling to repair relations with Gary Lineker and stave off a staff mutiny at the corporation, with hopes that the presenter could be back in post by next weekend.
The row left the BBC’s chair, Richard Sharp, fighting for his future on Sunday night as Jeremy Hunt stopped short of backing him to guard the corporation’s impartiality in the wake of the row.
The corporation’s director general, Tim Davie, jetted back from the US for crisis talks before an internal meeting on Monday that one source at the broadcaster predicted would be “carnage” if a breakthrough is not reached on Lineker’s suspension from Match of the Day.
Another senior source said talks were “moving, but not there yet” in efforts to end the standoff with the star, who was taken off air after a tweet condemning Rishi Sunak’s new migration bill, prompting an extraordinary exodus of high-profile presenters and commentators.
The row has left the BBC facing its most serious crisis in years. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have said Sharp’s position has become untenable because he is himself compromised on impartiality grounds, having introduced Boris Johnson to a friend who gave the former prime minister a loan guarantee.
The former chancellor George Osborne said Sharp only had any hope of staying in post was if he could help broker an end to the standoff between the BBC and Lineker.
Osborne said Lineker “should help the BBC find a ladder down which to climb”, but added: “Personally, I think some of the language used on immigration by some Conservatives – not all – is not acceptable.”
Lineker has said he will not apologise for the tweet, which compared the language used around migration to that in 1930s Germany. His suspension from Match of the Day meant the corporation was forced to abandon most of the weekend’s football coverage and to air drastically shortened versions of the highlights show two days running, after pundits refused to appear on air.
Despite his own close relationship with Sharp, Sunak offered only a lukewarm defence of the man who was once his boss at Goldman Sachs and later recruited as an unpaid government adviser by the then chancellor during Covid.
Sharp has admitted introducing to the Cabinet Office a friend and distant cousin of Johnson, Sam Blyth, who later provided a loan guarantee facility to Johnson for up to £800,000. The culture select committee of MPs condemned Sharp for failing to publicly divulge his role.
The prime minister declined to praise the integrity of Sharp when invited to by journalists en route to San Diego, instead pointing to the “independent appointments process” he went through, and stressed that Sharp “was appointed before I was prime minister”.
He added there was “not much I can say” while a review is conducted into Sharp’s hiring, but noted: “It’s right that process concludes. It gives people the confidence that they need.”
The chancellor also declined to give firm backing to the BBC chair’s ability to ensure impartiality at the corporation, the latest government figure to seek to distance themselves from the row.
Hunt said he would not pass judgment on whether Lineker needed to apologise or leave his role on Match of the Day, but when asked about Sharp, he said: “Making sure the BBC maintains its reputation for independence and impartiality is the outcome that matters most.”
Osborne said Sharp “should not have got himself tangled in Boris Johnson’s personal finances” and said there were questions over his main purpose in the role, which was to defend the BBC.
“Ultimately, the chairman of the BBC should be there to defend the BBC, come thick or thin, against the government, and I think Richard’s got to show in the next couple of days he can do that, and perhaps broker some kind of deal,” he said.
The shadow culture secretary, Lucy Powell, said Sharp’s position was “increasingly untenable” because he was subject to an investigation over his links to Johnson. “I think he, at this stage, should be reflecting on whether he’s able to do that very important job,” she told Times Radio.
Lineker, the BBC’s highest-paid presenter, declined to be drawn on his suspension as he left his south London home looking cheerful and relaxed on Sunday afternoon.
His son George said his father had been “pulled off” the airwaves for refusing to apologise for his tweet. The 31-year-old wrote on Twitter: “Shouldn’t need to apologise for being a good person and standing by his word. The reaction of the public has been overwhelming.”
Michelle Stanistreet, the NUJ general secretary, said the crisis had rocked the corporation and left staff questioning why Sharp had “ducked for cover” instead of “battling for the BBC and its reputation”.
Peter Salmon, a former controller of BBC One and director of sport, said the row was a “mess” and urged Davie to take control of the situation. He said Lineker was a “national figure” but that he may have “outgrown the job and the role in the BBC”.
The saga began when Lineker described the government’s “stop the boats” bill, unveiled last week, as an “immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”.
On Friday, after the former England striker refused to apologise, the BBC announced that he had “stepped back” from his presenting duties. It later emerged that he had been taken off the airwaves.
His suspension triggered an unprecedented revolt among many of the BBC’s best-known pundits and commentators, started by the ex-England forwards Ian Wright and Alan Shearer, and including the presenters Alex Scott and Jason Mohammad.
The walkout forced the BBC to axe most of its primetime football programming, including Football Focus, Final Score, and Radio 5 Live’s Fighting Talk, and replace Match of the Day with a 20-minute highlights package that had no commentary or analysis.
The row also disrupted BBC Two’s coverage of the Women’s Super League match between Manchester United and Chelsea, which aired alongside world feed commentary and featured no expert analysis.