BBC Director-General Tim Davie’s leadership is in question after he was forced to make a humiliating climbdown in the Gary Lineker row this morning.

Having made impartiality the central plank of his tenure, Davie lost out in a battle of wills with the BBC’s highest-paid presenter, who refused to apologise for breaching the corporation’s social media rules.

In a statement today, Davie said he was launching an independent review into the guidelines, and was looking forward to watching Lineker on Match of the Day this weekend.

But although he told the BBC that “Gary has agreed to abide by the guidance whilst the independent review takes place,” this guarantee was not included in the official BBC statement. And Lineker himself gave no public assurance that he will rein in his remarks.

In fact, within minutes of Davie’s statement being released, Lineker tweeted that while the last few days had been difficult, they didn’t compare to “having to flee your home from persecution…and seek refuge in [another] land.”

This whole argument began because the Match of the Day host tweeted critically about the government’s asylum policy. Lineker said the language in which the plan was set out was “not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”.

As for Davie, he now faces accusations from Conservatives that he caved after the BBC’s weekend sports schedule was plunged into chaos.

He has also lost the confidence of Lineker’s influential supporters on the other side of the political spectrum, with Labour accusing Davie of bowing to political pressure by taking the presenter off air.

Closer to home, he must quell an internal revolt, after BBC presenters and staff joined the unofficial walkout sparked by Lineker’s benching.

Screengrab from the Twitter feed of Match Of The Day host Gary Lineker, after BBC director-general Tim Davie apologised after the disruption to its football coverage and said he looks forward to Match Of The Day host Gary Lineker returning to presenting duties this weekend. He also announced an independent review of social media guidelines at the corporation, particularly for freelancers. Issue date: Monday March 13, 2023. PA Photo. In a statement from Gary Lineker, issued through the BBC, the football presenter said: "I am glad that we have found a way forward. "I support this review and look forward to getting back on air." See PA story MEDIA Lineker . Photo credit should read: Gary Lineker/Twitter/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This handout photo may only be used in for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or the people in the image or facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the picture may require further permission from the copyright holder.
Screengrab from the Twitter feed of reinstated Match Of The Day host Gary Lineker (PA)

A Director-General could normally expect the public backing of the BBC chairman when embroiled in controversy.

But Richard Sharp is also facing growing pressure to resign at the same time as the corporation’s policy on impartiality has been called into question.

Sharp, who was appointed chairman in February 2021, has been embroiled in a cronyism row over his role in discussions which helped former prime minister Boris Johnson secure an £800,000 loan facility.

The chaos comes against a backdrop of wider discontent within the BBC.

Local radio staff will strike on Budget day in protest at plans to share some programmes across regions, the BBC News channel is now broadcasting a merged service with World News programming and the classical music world is in uproar over cuts to BBC orchestras and the closure of the BBC Singers ensemble.

Davie, whose decision to continue with a visit to Washington D.C. to promote the BBC’s news service during a week of escalating crisis surprised some, faces a huge task in reimposing his authority across the BBC in the coming weeks.

One insider said: “Tim’s problem is he came from a marketing background so he has never had the programming experience to be ‘editor-in-chief.’ He is also not the best in a crisis situation. Someone’s head will have to roll for this.”

The Lineker climbdown could also have consequences in Downing Street. An upcoming BBC mid-term review into its Charter will focus on tightening up rules on impartiality and bias.

Lucy Frazer, the culture secretary, told MPs: “It is important for the BBC to maintain impartiality if it is to retain the trust of the public, who pay the licence fee.”

Lineker did make one concession to Davie. He thanked his boss for his “understanding during a difficult period”. The presenter said: “He has an almost impossible job keeping everybody happy, particularly in the area of impartiality.”

Allies of Davie said he had got to the right result in the end.

One said: “He thought once passions calmed we would get the right resolution for everybody, especially viewers who expect to see their favourite programmes.

“We’ve got Gary back on air, he is aware of his responsibilities on social media and we will have a review bringing clarity to the area of freelancers and entertainment figures. Tim demonstrated how important impartiality is to the BBC.”

Dame Patricia Hodgson, former chairwoman of Ofcom and ex-BBC director of policy, said everyone is asking the wrong question in the row over impartiality rules and Gary Lineker.

“The issue – and it’s not clear – is how we combine free speech with respect for that BBC brand; that’s to say the way that the BBC respects the opinions of the range of people it serves. So it seems to me that, on social media, people strongly associated with the BBC should be able to express their own opinions, including public opinions,” she told the Radio 4 Today programme.

“That’s to say celebrities, people in sport and entertainment, not the news staff, providing they do so with respect for the BBC brand, respecting others, avoiding what might be thought to be aggressive or in some way stoking culture wars, and that’s the challenge that we’re seeing worked out in front of us.”

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