Lineker row threatens BBC’s reputation, regulator warns


Trust in the BBC is on the line as it struggles to resolve the Gary Lineker controversy, the head of the broadcasting regulator has warned.

Melanie Dawes, the chief executive of Ofcom, said the impartiality row went “straight to the heart of the BBC’s wider reputation, beyond its news and current affairs coverage”.

The warning came as Mr Lineker appeared to taunt BBC bosses with a new Twitter picture promoting free speech just a day after he and the BBC reached a temporary truce.

His profile on the social media site now features a photoshopped picture of himself standing next to a George Orwell inscription outside the BBC’s headquarters.

It read: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

He also retweeted a speech by former prime minister Theresa May in which she criticised the government’s small boats crackdown and warned that the new asylum bill “shuts the door” to genuine victims of modern slavery.

The BBC’s weekend football coverage effectively collapsed after the presenter was suspended from Match of the Day over his criticism of the policy, prompting pundits, presenters and commentators to withdraw in solidarity.

He was reinstated on Monday and made no apology for his tweet comparing the government’s language to 1930s Germany –immediately tweeting again about the plight of refugees as he announced his return.

Tory MP Sir John Hayes said: “It would be better for everyone to move on. And Gary would be best advised now to eat humble pie and recognise what he said was not good for the BBC and he has a responsibility to impartiality.”

Giving evidence to MPs, Ms Dawes warned that the BBC would have to weigh freedom of expression with impartiality when reviewing its guidelines following the “difficult episode” with Lineker.

On Monday, BBC director-general Tim Davie apologised for “the potential confusion caused by the grey areas” of its social media guidance and confirmed a review was being undertaken.

Ms Dawes told the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee it was up to the broadcaster’s board to “draw that line” to safeguard the BBC’s reputation.

“There is ambiguity in there. I think that was probably designed to give a degree of flexibility. I think it’s fair to say that it didn’t achieve what they wanted,” she told MPs.

She added: “But I think this is a difficult issue for them, I don’t think this is going to be straightforward, and to some extent is going to be about a level of trust, particularly with their staff.”

When it came to freelancers and actors “it’s a slightly different question and I think they need to be weighing freedom of expression alongside the wider reputation they have for impartiality.”

But she said the impartiality row with Lineker would not play into the licence fee debate, confirming a “new operating licence” for the BBC will be published next week.

During the session, she also refused to answer questions about how the BBC can operate with a “compromised” chairman after it emerged Richard Sharp had been involved in facilitating an £800,000 loan for then prime minister Boris Johnson.

Meanwhile a separate row erupted after Labour’s culture secretary Lucy Powell accused Tory ministers and MPs of orchestrating a “cancel campaign” which saw Lineker pulled off air and comparing it to Vladimir Putin’s regime.

She asked what does it look like “to the outside world that a much-loved sports presenter is taken off air for tweeting something the government doesn’t like? It sounds more like Putin’s Russia to me.”

Tory culture minister Julia Lopez hit back that any comparison with Moscow’s authoritarian regime was “disgraceful” and “way off the mark”. The BBC has been approached for comment.

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