Spiralling dispute with star host puts BBC’s reputation on the line

LONDON – As an English soccer star, Mr Gary Lineker was renowned for having never been penalised with a yellow or red card in his 16-year career.

As a politically opinionated sports broadcaster for the BBC, Mr Lineker has tangled regularly with the officials, and his suspension over a Twitter post on immigration last week escalated into a crisis that now engulfs the BBC.

Mr Lineker’s standoff with the BBC has set off a noisy national debate over free expression, government influence and the role of a revered, if beleaguered, public broadcaster in an era of polarised politics and freewheeling social media.

It came after a walkout by Mr Lineker’s soccer colleagues forced the BBC to radically curtail its coverage of a national obsession, reducing the chatty flagship show he usually anchors, “Match of the Day,” to 20 commentary-free minutes.

On Sunday, the BBC was struggling to work out a compromise with Mr Lineker that would put him back on the air, after days of controversy over his criticism of a government plan to crack down on asylum-seekers.

But the fallout from the dispute is likely to be wide and long-lasting, casting doubt over the corporation’s management, which has made political impartiality a priority but has faced persistent questions about its own close ties to Britain’s conservative government.

“All this has put the BBC’s independence at risk, and its reputation at risk,” said Ms Claire Enders, a London-based media researcher and the founder of Enders Analysis.

“That’s unfortunate because this is, at heart, a dispute over whether the BBC can impose its social media guidelines on a contractor.”

Mr Lineker, 62, is no ordinary contractor, of course.

He is perhaps the BBC’s biggest name, a beloved sports figure who made a smooth transition from the playing field to the broadcasting booth, where he has been a weekly fixture since 1999, analysing games and shooting the breeze with other retired sports stars.

He is the BBC’s highest-paid on-air personality, earning £1.35 million (S$2.1 million) in 2022.

But Mr Lineker, who grew up in a working-class family in Leicester, has never kept his views on social issues a secret.

When the government announced strict new immigration plans, he posted on Twitter, “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?”