The row was sparked after Lineker, the BBC’s highest-paid presenter, criticised the government’s plan to stop migrants from crossing the Channel on small boats. He described it as a “cruel policy” with language that “is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”. Home secretary Suella Braverman has previously denied using Nazi-like rhetoric in relation to asylum seekers. Since then, the presenter has been forced to step back from his duties at the BBC, but colleagues such as Alex Scott and Ian Wright have refused to appear on air in solidarity with Lineker. For high-profile names, impartiality guidelines state these individuals have an additional responsibility to the BBC because of their status. Specifically, the broadcaster expects them to avoid taking sides on political issues and to take care when addressing public policy matters. As ex-director general Mark Thompson has stated, Lineker’s criticism of the government’s asylum bill appears to be a “technical breach” of the impartiality rules but his status as a sports presenter means the fallout was a “grey area”.
But why has the BBC come down so hard in this instance? After all, Lineker is not the only employee to express controversial political opinions. For example, Lord Sugar of The Apprentice has previously tweeted a mock–up image of ex-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn sitting next to Adolf Hitler. Similarly, Baroness Karren Brady of the same show is a Conservative peer and has a column in the right-wing Sun newspaper. Andrew Neil, formerly one of the BBC’s most prolific journalists for over 20 years, was allowed to hold his post as chairman of the leading right-wing magazine the Spectator whilst an employee. Neil was seemingly allowed to express his right-wing views without limit, despite the obvious clashes that came with his Spectator role and the established values of the BBC. This incident with Lineker also comes at a time when the BBC will not broadcast an episode of Sir David Attenborough’s new wildlife series. This is due to concerns that it will create backlash from Tory politicians and the right-wing press because it follows British nature being destroyed.
But perhaps most interestingly is the BBC’s stance on what Lineker has previously said. Take the Qatar World Cup, the presenter was free to question human rights records within the host country without much restraint. Yet, when he attempts to comment on the state of human rights within the UK, barriers are raised because he criticises the government. His first criticism of Qatar was also broadcast on air, unlike this incident which has occurred on social media. Ultimately, the treatment of Lineker and other BBC hosts who have been pressured for their left-wing views provides a stark contrast to those who express right-wing ideology and the seemingly more lenient treatment they get. It is this imbalance in coverage which demonstrates the true impartiality crisis for the broadcaster.