How two days of BBC social media firefighting created all out chaos

Members of the public walk past a large poster showing the Match of the Day team - Carl Recine/Reuters
Members of the public walk past a large poster showing the Match of the Day team – Carl Recine/Reuters

The depth of the BBC’s capitulation over the Gary Lineker affair was summed up by Gary Neville, the former England player turned football pundit. On Twitter – where else? – he posted the word “apology” followed by two crying-with-laughter emojis.

The joint statement from the BBC and Lineker, supposedly addressing the presenter’s inflammatory social media use, turned out to be 250 words of apology from the BBC and not one word of it from the corporation’s highest-paid star.

“Everyone recognises this has been a difficult period for staff, contributors, presenters and, most important, our audiences. I apologise for this,” said Tim Davie, the corporation’s director-general.

Lineker had been understandably confused by the BBC’s poorly thought-out social media guidelines – the guidelines that Mr Davie had brought in himself, to much fanfare, less than three years ago – and who could blame the Match of the Day host for misinterpreting the rules when they ran into such “grey areas”?

Instead of taking any further action against the sports presenter, the BBC would instead launch a full-scale review of this inadequate guidance with a particular focus on how it applies to freelancers outside of news and current affairs programming. Freelancers like Gary Lineker. “Gary is in favour of such a review,” said Mr Davie. You bet he is.

It was a humiliating climbdown. But, over the weekend, a decision had been made: Mr Davie would accept the blame in order to draw a line under the affair, quell a staff mutiny and get sports programming back on air.

As part of the last-minute negotiations, Mr Davie believed he had extracted an undertaking from Lineker not to tweet about politics. He hoped to include that concession in the statement, indicating that both sides had given ground and reached an “elegant way forward”. But Lineker did not commit that undertaking to print.

Once the statement was released, Mr Davie appeared on television. If he thought that being questioned by one of his own employees might guarantee an easy ride, he was swiftly disabused of that notion. David Sillito, the BBC’s media and arts correspondent, had no intention of pussyfooting around the boss.

“This looks like a complete climbdown,” he began, before accusing Mr Davie of abandoning his tough talk over impartiality at the first sign of “a bit of disruption to Match of the Day”.

As for that disruption: “How are you so out of touch with your own corporation, your own organisation, your own staff, your own programmes, that you didn’t foresee the complete chaos that has happened?” And a challenge that got to the heart of the matter over Mr Davie’s handling of the affair: “Basically, you just made a catastrophic mistake.”

That mistake was to underestimate the strength of Lineker’s support both among the general public and within the BBC itself. Less than a week ago, the BBC had been bullish. Lineker kicked off the row on Tuesday with a tweet in which he drew parallels between the messaging of the Government’s “small boats” policy and the language of 1930s Germany. BBC sources said that Lineker would be “spoken to and reminded of his responsibilities”.

Such warnings usually work – the presenters delete their tweet or issue a swift apology – but Lineker fanned the flames by making more comments on social media, including the sharing of a tweet which read: “Gary Lineker is entitled to say what he likes.”

When the presenter tried to call the BBC’s bluff on Friday by announcing his intention to appear on Match of the Day as normal, Mr Davie decided to get tough and announced that Lineker had been removed from the programme until further notice.

The expectation was that the presenter, after basking in 72 hours of praise from his Twitter followers, would come down off his high horse and apologise for using intemperate language. BBC Sport bosses began calling other presenters, asking them to fill in for Lineker on Match of the Day.

What followed was an unprecedented show of solidarity from Lineker’s colleagues, beginning with Match of the Day pundits Ian Wright and Alan Shearer, then taking in every other presenter and pundit who might have served as an alternative. Match-day commentators withdrew their labour. On Saturday, the schedules descended into farce.

Football Focus on BBC One was replaced by Bargain Hunt. Viewers tuning in to Final Score found an old episode of The Repair Shop. Bosses at Radio 5 Live were forced to fill the airwaves with podcasts. Premier League players did not give post-match interviews to the BBC. Match of the Day was replaced by a funereal 20-minute highlights package without a theme tune; an extra 500,000 people tuned in just to witness the car crash.

As the programming disaster unfolded, the two main players were out in public. Lineker was pictured laughing and joking in the directors box at the King Power Stadium, where his beloved Leicester City were taking on Chelsea. He received a hero’s welcome, with fans holding up banners that read: “I’m with Gary. Migrants welcome”.

Mr Davie was in Washington DC, where he had travelled to meet staff from the relaunched BBC News channel. Instead, he was conducting transatlantic talks with Alice Macandrew, his newly-appointed director of corporate affairs, over how to get out of the mess and avoid the de facto strike running into another week.

They decided to extend an olive branch to Lineker in as public a way as possible. Mr Davie sat down with the BBC’s North America correspondent, Nomia Iqbal, for an interview broadcast at 7pm on Saturday night. The director-general praised Lineker as “the best sports broadcaster in the world” and said he wanted “to make sure he can come back on air”. It was the first sign that Mr Davie was reversing his position. He was also asked if he planned to resign, and replied that he would “absolutely not”.

BBC management and board members were in agreement that Lineker had clearly breached its editorial guidelines – a less egregious political tweet, about Russian donors’ links to the Tory party, saw him rebuked by the executive complaints unit in October. But reprimanding him for his latest misdemeanour was out of the question, given the heightened tensions. Mr Davie and his advisers therefore identified a way out of the mess: admit that the guidelines themselves were at fault.

Mr Davie jumped on a flight after the interview – the BBC insisting that he did not cut short his trip, but had always planned to return on Saturday night. Back in the UK on Sunday, he spent the day in “intensive negotiations” with Lineker and his representatives. The presenter’s agent, Jon Holmes, has a reputation for fiercely protecting his clients’ interests. Back-and-forth over the precise wording of the statement continued on Sunday night, with insiders saying that things were “going in the right direction”.

“There have been constructive conversations. Both sides have been working on something that will satisfy the BBC’s concerns and allow Gary back on air,” a source advised.

But the statement that eventually landed at 10am on Monday was noticeably one-sided, with Lineker shouldering no blame and offering no apology for his original tweet. “I am glad that we have found a way forward. I support this review and look forward to getting back on air,” was his only contribution.

Of course, Lineker had more to say on Twitter. He thanked fans for their “incredible support” and colleagues for their “remarkable show of solidarity”. In a show of great magnanimity, he added:

Mr Davie was well aware that Lineker would not confine his social media use to tweets about Leicester City’s relegation chances, but he may not have anticipated a return to the subject of refugees in such short order. Lineker’s response included his sympathy for those who have been forced to flee their homes “to seek refuge in a land far away”. The BBC said that this was not a political tweet, simply a humanitarian one, and therefore within its guidance.

For Lineker, it is now business as usual. On Saturday, he will be hosting the BBC’s live coverage of the FA Cup quarter-final between Manchester City and Burnley. At New Broadcasting House, there are greater challenges. A review of the BBC’s editorial guidelines can have only two outcomes: a tightening of the rules, with Lineker ordered never to tweet a personal opinion about politics again; or giving Lineker the freedom to say what he likes, either by excluding freelancers from the guidance – rewriting the impartiality rules to say that they apply only to news journalists – or to abandon the so-called “Lineker Clause” that states presenters with a particularly high profile have an additional responsibility to the BBC.

Mr Davie has not solved the problem, but merely kicked the can down the road.


Published by anthonyhayble


%d bloggers like this: