Match of the Day, the BBC’s flagship football highlights programme, has been on air since 1964 but it has never known a weekend quite like this.
The football output — on television, radio and online — of the UK’s national broadcaster was torn apart as key figures boycotted BBC output to protest the corporation’s treatment of MOTD presenter Gary Lineker after he was stood down from Saturday night’s programme for criticising the UK government’s asylum policy on social media.
The calamitous weekend ended with a shortened 15-minute MOTD 2 being broadcast after BBC bosses and Lineker held crisis talks that were “moving in the right direction”, according to the corporation’s own report.
The Athletic has spoken to people at the BBC and elsewhere in football, many of whom have spoken on condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, to explain what happened over a weekend in which football, media and politics collided with extraordinary results.
- Premier League clubs and players got caught in the crossfire.
- Bewilderment at an “absolutely crazy” situation.
- How Saturday’s scheduling quickly “unravelled”.
- “Carnage” on BBC radio before Leeds vs Brighton.
- Fears the crisis might spread beyond football.
- Some star names now considering their positions.
- “The future of this — possibly under-threat — institution could depend on this”.
- Lineker set to return to screens in time for next weekend’s FA Cup action.
The BBC is primarily funded by viewers and listeners paying their licence fees — £159 ($191) a year — and BBC journalists are required to be strictly impartial and avoid voicing opinions on political issues. But former England striker Lineker, a freelance sports presenter paid £1.35million by the corporation last year, is not bound by quite the same guidelines.
On March 7, he posted a ‘reply’ on Twitter referencing “the language used by Germany in the 1930s” and criticised the government’s “immeasurably cruel” asylum policy. Home secretary Suella Braverman said the post “diminishes” the horrors of Nazi Germany.
BBC bosses have long been concerned that Lineker’s strident anti-government tweets harm the perception of the organisation but could never have imagined the issue would come to a head in such dramatic fashion.
Lineker’s suspension on Friday was followed by a walk-out among football production staff.
Director general Tim Davie’s observation that it was a “difficult day” was something of an understatement. Andrew Clement, a football editor at BBC television, said on Twitter that Friday and Saturday were “about the worst 24 hours I have experienced in over 30 years in BBC Sport”.
It began with Lineker’s MOTD co-hosts — first Ian Wright and then Alan Shearer — pulling out of the programme on Friday evening. Then the walkout spread to Football Focus, the Saturday lunchtime magazine show; Final Score, the BBC’s live results service; and BBC Radio 5 Live, which airs the corporation’s Premier League commentaries.
BBC TV’s 10 o’clock news bulletin did not have a full sports section — only a mention of England’s thrashing by France in rugby union’s Six Nations. Although MOTD still aired on Saturday evening, it lasted only 20 minutes and had no audio commentary whatsoever.
One senior BBC journalist described the mood on Saturday as “wild”, with rumours of mass resignations of some of the BBC’s most famous names flying around in WhatsApp groups.
A common rumour was that the crisis would spread beyond sport to other parts of the BBC, with whispers of prominent non-sport presenters joining the action and standing by Lineker.
The BBC said in a statement on Saturday: “The BBC will only be able to bring limited sport programming this weekend and our schedules will be updated to reflect that. We are sorry for these changes, which we recognise will be disappointing for sport fans. We are working hard to resolve the situation and hope to do so soon.”
The UK’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said later that evening that the situation was a matter for the BBC and not the government.
The BBC’s schedule was torn up again on Sunday. Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Manchester United in the Women’s Super League on BBC One had no pre-match build-up or half-time analysis, with commentary taken from television pictures rather than in-person at the ground.
BBC Radio 5 Live played four back-to-back podcasts instead of build-up to Newcastle United’s win over Wolves, and MOTD 2 on Sunday night was cut to just 15 minutes.
Solidarity, crisis management and a doorstepped director general
Internally at MOTD, there has long been a feeling that a confrontation was coming.
Not everybody agrees with everything Lineker tweets or the frequency with which he does it but there is a feeling of solidarity among the production staff with their on-air colleagues. Many feel the Lineker issue is a basic question of free speech, and there is a general mood of disappointment with what has happened.
On Friday afternoon, after Lineker refused to apologise, the BBC announced he had been asked to “step back” from MOTD until there is “an agreed and clear position on his use of social media”.
It swiftly became clear that this had not been a mutual decision — and things imploded.
Wright had been due to appear with Lineker at the MOTD studios in Salford, Greater Manchester, but he was the first to announce he would be stepping aside, a pivotal moment that opened the floodgates to many others taking the same action.
Wright’s tweet was sent at 5.22pm on Friday, escalating things from dramatic to a full-blown institutional crisis for the BBC. One MOTD insider said it quickly became an “absolutely crazy” situation.
But it should not have come as a surprise to BBC bosses. In an episode of the Wrighty’s House podcast, which was tweeted out 90 minutes earlier, the former Arsenal striker had made his position clear.
“I tell you something if they do, the BBC, get rid of Gary Lineker, I am out, I’m gone, I’m not staying there,” said Wright. “On his own platform (his Twitter account) he should be able to say what he wants to say.”
Wright was swiftly followed by Shearer and then many other pundits and other staff who had been down to cover a bumper weekend of football on television and radio.
In true BBC style, the broadcaster gave huge coverage to its own internal mess, sent push notifications to its app users about Wright’s tweet, and the Lineker affair dominated BBC output all weekend. Competitors tried to capitalise, with pointed references to new listeners on talkSPORT, the UK’s commercial sport radio station, and a cheeky advert placed outside BBC HQ in central London.
The corporation’s director general Davie was ‘doorstepped’ outside a BBC office in Washington DC, before sitting down for an interview with a BBC correspondent.
‘It unravelled so fast’
Some of those at the BBC Sport offices in Salford described a mood of complete chaos, as a weekend of sporting coverage dramatically imploded on Saturday.
As well as the eerie Match of the Day, the BBC’s live text commentary on the BBC website and app was noticeably toned down, with basic goal updates but little else.
The live page usually carries bylines of the journalists providing updates but this time did not, seemingly to avoid those individuals becoming the target of anger.
Premier League clubs — most urgently, Liverpool and Bournemouth who played in the early kick-off on Saturday — scrambled on Friday to reach a common position, and the Premier League was in constant dialogue with the BBC.
The BBC did not have the live television or radio rights to Bournemouth’s 1-0 win but both clubs were worried about the public perception of giving interviews to MOTD. This is usually a contractual obligation, putting players and managers in an awkward position given the strength of feeling of many fans about the Lineker issue.
A decision was reached by around 10pm on Friday and the Premier League spoke to the 12 clubs playing on Saturday and informed them that players and managers would not receive requests from MOTD for post-match interviews.
The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), the players’ union, was also involved in talks with its members and welcomed what it said was a “common sense decision”.
“It was just an incredibly difficult situation because it unravelled so fast and every development created new implications,” said a senior official at a Premier League club. “We would have had no grounds for a boycott though. It wasn’t even our dispute. We were just unwittingly caught up in it.”
Chaos in commentary boxes
The BBC does not have radio rights to the Premier League’s Saturday lunchtime kick-off but always airs commentary in the traditional 3pm Saturday slot when UK TV channels cannot show live football matches, which is known as the “blackout”.
The fixture chosen this week was Leeds vs Brighton at Elland Road, where those working on the BBC coverage received conflicting messages leading up to kick-off. Guidance seemed to change by the hour as chaos was raging in Salford and London, with one source describing it as “carnage”.
At 11am, when producers and commentators were pulling out of MOTD, it looked like the radio commentary on BBC 5 Live would not be going ahead. Mark Chapman, who also hosts MOTD 2 on television, withdrew from leading 5 Live’s flagship Saturday round-up show. The BBC explored the option of finding another presenter but fell short of forcing anyone to do it.
At Elland Road, Conor McNamara was set to do the MOTD commentary and arrived at the stadium but did not enter. MOTD uses dedicated commentators for each match rather than simply taking live radio commentary and cutting it to fit the TV highlights.
Staffers complained of a lack of information from leadership, with BBC bosses finally issuing a memo to staff in the afternoon promising “staff sessions” — either in person on Zoom — on Monday. Barbara Slater, the BBC’s director of sport, also sent a letter to staff saying sorry for the “impact of the news”.
An agreement was eventually reached for Leeds vs Brighton radio commentary to go ahead and Ian Dennis appeared at the ground to call the match, which ended 2-2. He did not have a co-commentator after Leon Osman stood down.
“I’ve found today very difficult but I’m a BBC staff member and today, like every Saturday afternoon, we provide a service to you the audience,” Dennis said before the coverage began.
He later tweeted thanking “messages of support” although he also received some abuse from those who interpreted his stance as not displaying solidarity with Lineker.
For a while, there were rumours about MOTD taking the Premier League’s world feed commentary picked up by foreign broadcasters before it became clear that the BBC did not have the rights to do this.
Some of these commentators ended up relieved at this outcome, meaning they were not put in a compromising position and a possible target of abuse, through no fault of their own.
The situation on BBC local radio was also fraught, with one journalist saying guidance was circulated on what to do if journalists were snubbed by players or managers at press conferences.
As it transpired, local radio largely carried on as normal, although Bradford City manager Mark Hughes chose not to speak to the BBC.
Institution under threat?
Lineker received an outpouring of public support, including the crowd at Leicester City singing his name when he decided to take in his hometown team’s game against Chelsea instead of travelling from his home in Barnes, west London, to Salford to record MOTD.
Many Conservative politicians reacted positively to the odd edition of Match of the Day, with former culture secretary Nadine Dorries saying “maybe people just want to watch the footie and not listen to commentators waffling on stating the obvious week after week”.
A major flashpoint is looming next weekend when the BBC is due to televise two FA Cup quarter-finals live. Manchester City host Burnley on BBC One on Saturday and Grimsby Town’s trip to Brighton & Hove Albion on Sunday is also due to be on the free-to-air channel. It is anticipated Lineker will return to anchor the BBC’s FA Cup coverage.
But the furore could leave more long-term scars after it damaged relationships between BBC management and its talent, some of whom are now considering their futures.
Pat Nevin, a former chairman of the PFA, appeared on BBC radio over the weekend but said he told bosses he would only do so if allowed to talk about the Lineker situation.
“There’s a dichotomy between free speech for us and due impartiality for the BBC. It’s where you draw the line,” he said. “That line’s been far too blurred; for the staff and the public. We need clarification.
“The future of this — possibly under-threat — institution could depend on this. It’s about getting on and getting it right from hereon in.”
Strict impartiality rules
The ways in which the BBC operates may seem baffling to those who live outside a country where the institution is one of the bedrocks of public life.
The BBC is funded by the licence fee, a charge of £159 a year for households who watch or record live TV on any channel or service, or use BBC iPlayer, but this model is under long-term threat as people shift to streaming platforms and other forms of media.
The organisation is editorially independent and its journalists are bound by strict impartiality rules, though these are more lenient for those involved in non-news output such as sport.
Mark Damazer is the former controller of BBC Radio 4.
“The BBC has noticed some of its high profile non-news presenters in recent years have tweeted and used their social media accounts to make trenchant criticisms of various aspects of politics,” he told The Athletic. “The BBC’s anxiety has been that the impression the public has of the BBC is somewhat influenced by what someone like Gary Lineker does off-air.
“They are worried that the whole of the BBC is undermined or tarnished because Gary is saying such enormously strong things on his Twitter account.”
Lineker has never expressed his political views while presenting Match of the Day or any other BBC output. The issue concerns his use of social media.
The BBC’s own social media guidelines say individuals linked to the BBC “have the potential to compromise the BBC’s impartiality and to damage its reputation”.
However, there is an important caveat. “The risk is lower where an individual is expressing views publicly on an unrelated area, for example, a sports or science presenter expressing views on politics or the arts.”
Lineker’s supporters also point to inconsistencies with the BBC’s policies, such as the fact that West Ham co-owner Karren Brady, who appears on the UK’s version of The Apprentice, is a government lawmaker in the House of Lords.
Sir Alan Sugar (above), also of The Apprentice fame and once Tottenham Hotspur owner, has used his Twitter feed to criticise former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as well as endorsing Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party in 2019.
The row and disruption that followed Lineker’s tweets this week, though, is unlike anything we have seen before.
Additional contributors: Phil Hay and Philip Buckingham
(Top photo: Darren Staples/AFP via Getty Images)