The BBC let the Government “off the hook” by leading news bulletins with the Gary Lineker tweets story instead of focusing on controversy over Government’s the new migration policy, insiders said.

Staff and former news executives questioned the editorial decision to give the Match of the Day presenter’s remarks lead billing on its news bulletins and website.

“Instead of questioning whether the migration bill breaches human rights law we were giving prominence to an internal row whipped up right-wing Conservatives,” said one journalist. “It lets the Government off the hook by following the agenda of people hostile to the BBC.”

Richard Sambrook, former director of BBC News, said: “It’s daft that a sports presenter’s tweet has led BBC News all day rather than the real issues.” He added, however, that he defended “an editor’s right to decide.”

Channel 4 News presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy asked: “Isn’t a bit odd how much BBC News is banging on about BBC Sport presenter Gary Lineker and his political views?”

Editors ensured the Lineker story was accorded the same prominence as the row over BBC Chairman Richard Sharp’s involvement in facilitating a loan to Boris Johnson. That affair had also led BBC News bulletins, despite causing embarrassment for senior executives.

BBC journalists are keenly aware that the Lineker story divides its audience. Tory MPs believe “red wall” BBC viewers are more likely to want tough action on migration and expect Lineker to stick to talking about football.

But there was a huge wave of support for Lineker from influential left-leaning figures, including Alastair Campbell and LBC presenter James O’Brien, defending the presenter’s right to freedom of speech and endorsing his attack on Home Secretary Suella Braverman.

The BBC had taken care to balance coverage of the Lineker row with the migration story, editorial figures insisted.

One said: “BBC News had covered the asylum policy extensively for several days around the launch of the policy, so it’s not the case that one story comes at the expense of the other.”

The debate over the ex-England striker’s tweets however was “a story about one of the BBC’s most high-profile presenters criticising Government policy and as such of considerable interest and import.” There has been only a handful of viewer complaints that the BBC gave Lineker too much prominence, i understands.

The BBC also acted with one eye on ratings. “This story was obviously of huge interest to audiences. It was the most popular on the News website,” a source said.

“There was full analysis of the policy too but you can’t ignore a row involving Downing Street and the BBC’s highest-earning presenter.”

The story was useful in helping retain viewers during the first week of broadcast for the relaunched BBC News channel, which merges domestic with international news, i understands. “It showed we won’t neglect big UK news stories,” one individual said.

It also gave Katie Razzall, the BBC’s new Culture and Media editor, who replaced Amol Rajan, a platform to introduce herself to viewers and explain why Lineker’s tweets had created problems for the BBC.

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