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.
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.”