Lineker challenged the BBC by stating that he will appear on Match of the Day as usual on Saturday without agreeing to rein in his social media use, after comparing the Government’s illegal migration policy to Nazi Germany.
A discussion between Lineker, his agent Jon Holmes and BBC Director-General Tim Davie produced no agreement on a way forward – but did leave the broadcaster’s highest-paid presenter free to return to work without any immediate disciplinary action.
Insiders said it was premature for Lineker to declare victory. “We take this incredibly seriously. No agreement has been reached and the matter is ongoing,” said one.
The BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit could rule on Lineker’s migration tweets and find that they are a serious breach of impartiality guidelines.
The body has previously ruled that, despite not working in news, Lineker has an “additional responsibility” to abide by the impartiality rules because of his high-profile TV role.
This would be the presenter’s second breach in six months after tweeting about the Conservative party’s receipt of money from “Russian donors”.
Mr Davie faces pressure to asset his authority over the star, paid £1.35m a year by licence-fee payers.
The Director-General has made political impartiality a central feature of his leadership but the BBC has produced no clear answer as to how this can be imposed upon freelancers such as Lineker.
Sir John Whittingdale, the former Culture Secretary, called on ministers to write into the BBC’s Charter a new requirement for impartiality from freelance employees.
“While individual contracts are a matter for the BBC, I have asked the Culture Secretary to include the enforcement of impartiality rules on freelancers as well as full-time staff in the terms of the mid-term licence fee review,” he told i.
Sir John said Lineker should go if he refused to submit to the rules and called on the Director-General to bring his star into line.
He said: “Tim Davie has rightly made political impartiality a central feature of his leadership and it is important that he show that this applies to all those who work for the BBC, no matter how much they are paid, what form their contract takes and which department they are in.”
Richard Sambrook, former BBC Director of News, said the BBC “needs to review and clarify its contractual relationship with freelance staff – and clarify to what extent impartiality rules extend beyond news. Both are currently full of fudge and continuing fudge around these issues allows critics from both political sides to attack the BBC.”
Even if the BBC produces new rules, they are unlikely to apply to Lineker who believes the five-year contract he signed with the BBC in 2020 allows him to freedom to express personal views outside of the broadcaster.
Roger Mosey, former head of TV news and sport at the BBC said “there has been a widespread belief that his (Lineker’s) current contract with the BBC would be his last”.
Options for dealing with Lineker, if he refuses to accept the BBC’s rules, include an early departure from his contract at the end of the current season or creating a looser relationship with the BBC which might allow him to retain his voice outside.
Observers have suggested that the 62 year-old knows he would be in high demand from rival sports broadcasters and appears relaxed about the outcome, even if it means leaving the BBC.
Andrew Marr, the former BBC political journalist, said that the corporation was in “a completely impossible position” with the Tories using Lineker as a “stick to beat it with”.
He said on his LBC Radio show that the BBC News decision to “lead its bulletins not on migration policy or anything else in the real world but on Gary Lineker” was “utterly mad.”
He said the row over BBC Chairman Richard Sharp’s role in facilitating a loan for Boris Johnson meant the corporation was unable to sack Lineker on any failure of political impartiality grounds.
“The Beeb can’t effectively discipline Lineker either, because he refuses to be effectively disciplined. I’m afraid that the BBC is well and truly stuffed over this one,” Marr concluded.
The BBC can at least expect an audience boost for Saturday’s Match of the Day as viewers tune in to see whether Lineker strays from the offside law into political debate.