Gary Lineker believed he had a “special arrangement” with the BBC allowing him to make comments about refugees, his agent has claimed.
Jon Holmes represents the former England striker, and has issued an insider’s account of the impartiality row, which he has described as descending into a “shambles” despite his best efforts to have “everyone calm down”.
He has claimed that his client believed he had an understanding with Tim Davie, director-general of the BBC, that he could make public statements on certain issues.
Writing in the New Statesman, Mr Holmes said: “Gary takes a passionate interest in refugees and immigration and, as he saw it, had a special agreement with Tim Davie, the BBC’s director-general, to tweet about these issues.”
Mr Holmes stated that the BBC did not see it this way, and that he was “summoned” to Broadcasting House to try and resolve the row over Lineker’s comment on Twitter, which were ultimately deemed by the BBC to have breached impartiality guidelines.
Mr Holmes defended his client’s adherence to the rules, writing that he “believes in the independence and impartiality of the BBC” and supports the view that “those who work in news should not express political opinions on Twitter”.
He also revealed that Lineker is “constantly being asked to appear on political programmes – including by the BBC” but “assiduously avoids them”.
The agent has argued that despite seeking to follow the rules, the guidelines for freelance presenters are “a bit vague” and require review.
Mr Holmes has said that he proposed a review in his first meeting with the BBC amid the impartiality row, on the Friday before Match of the Day was to be broadcast, and “told them taking Gary off air would not be helpful”.
The presenter was nevertheless “taken off air”, an action his agent believes the BBC did not have to sign off, and the situation then “collapsed into a shambles”, with Match of the Day colleagues including Ian Wright pulling out of the planned programme.
Mr Holmes reveals that on March 12 he held talks with Mr Davie, and plans were made for a satisfactory solution involving an apology and a review of impartiality guidelines.
The agent, who also represents former England cricket stars Michael Atherton and David Gower, has suggested that Lineker has become a controversial figure at the BBC, in part because of the publication of his £1.3 million annual earnings.
He wrote: “The BBC describes Gary as an icon, a totemic figure. One of the reasons he has this status (apart from the money the BBC pays him, the subject of endless controversy since it was made public) is his huge Twitter following.”
He added that the former striker’s tweeting has been a subject of “difficult” debate.
Lineker may face a choice – BBC or his own production company
Lineker may also face a choice between BBC duties and his own production company, depending on the findings of an impartiality review, The Telegraph understands.
It is understood the review is likely to clarify whether stars such as Lineker will have to give up outside media work, where there may be risk of providing a platform for political opinions, in order to continue working for the committedly non-partisan BBC.
Insiders said the planned independent review will need to decide one way or another if the output of ventures such as the former England captain’s Goalhanger production companies, which this week released a politics podcast on the Iraq War featuring Alastair Campbell, should be subject to impartiality rules.
If the rules do apply, and stars breach guidelines through their outside media commitments, the review may then need to establish whether they will be allowed to keep up both their BBC duties and their partisan personal projects.
It is understood that in answering these questions, the review will provide clarity for presenters engaged in outside work, such as Michael Portillo, who presents Great British Railway Journeys for the BBC while also appearing on GB News.
Plans to set out the rules for famous freelancers have been welcomed by Prof Richard Sambrooke, the journalism expert who was commissioned by the BBC to draw up its current impartiality guidelines.
He said: “The impartiality guidelines for news staff, which I reviewed in 2020, need to be strictly observed.
“But those have never applied to high-profile freelance presenters, where the guidance has always been looser and inconsistently applied.”
It is understood that Lineker will be taken off air again if he goes against impartiality guidance.