LONDON: Gary Lineker will return as presenter of the flagship BBC football show Match of the Day, the broadcaster said on Monday, ending a crisis sparked by his outspoken criticism of the UK government’s new asylum policy.
The former England footballer was suspended on Friday after using Twitter last week to compare the language used to launch the new policy to the rhetoric of Nazi-era Germany.
His comments and removal sparked frenzied media coverage which escalated after fellow presenters, pundits and commentators backed Lineker by refusing to work over the weekend.
That threw the publicly funded broadcaster’s sports coverage into disarray, curtailing its popular highlights package to just 20 minutes, without commentary or analysis.
But in a move widely seen as a climbdown by BBC chiefs, on Monday the two sides said they had agreed that Lineker would return to screens while the corporation launches an independent review into its social media guidelines.
“Gary is a valued part of the BBC and I know how much the BBC means to Gary, and I look forward to him presenting our coverage this coming weekend,” said BBC director-general Tim Davie.
In a joint statement, Lineker, 62, said: “I am glad that we have found a way forward. I support this review and look forward to getting back on the air.”
He tweeted separately that the last few days, during which he has been mobbed outside his London home by journalists, had been “surreal”.
But in a parting shot, he added: “However difficult the last few days have been, it simply doesn’t compare to having to flee your home from persecution or war to seek refuge in a land far away.”
Davie apologised for the disruption to the service, saying he recognised the “potential confusion caused by the grey areas of the BBC’s social media guidance”.
The review will look at how the guidance applies to staff and freelancers such as Lineker, he added.
Former Leicester, Everton, Tottenham and Barcelona striker Lineker, who has hosted refugees in his home, has often slammed government policies, particularly on immigration.
His comments overshadowed the announcement of plans to toughen laws governing asylum seekers, including the removal of those coming to the UK across the Channel from northern France in small boats.
The proposals were condemned by rights groups and the UN refugee agency, whose high commissioner Filippo Grandi launched a veiled attack on the UK government as he responded to Sunday’s Oscars.
“Small boats carry big talent,” he wrote of the best supporting actor award for Ke Huy Quan, who fled Vietnam for a refugee camp in Hong Kong before moving to the United States.
Critics of Lineker said he should stay out of politics. But he has argued that as a freelancer not working in news, he is not bound by the same social media rules.
His supporters point to other potential conflicts of interest in the organisation.
BBC chairman Richard Sharp was a donor to the ruling Conservative party, and facilitated a loan to former prime minister Boris Johnson as he was applying for the high-profile job.
Davie once stood to be a Tory councillor, and the BBC board includes others such as Robbie Gibb, who was Downing Street communications director in Theresa May’s government.
The futures of both Sharp and Davie are being debated after the Lineker fracas.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman Monday refused to say whether the BBC chairman — a political appointee — has Sunak’s backing, pointing to another review that is underway into his appointment.
“We’re pleased that this situation has been resolved and that fans will be able to watch Match of the Day as normal this weekend,” the spokesman told reporters.
“The BBC has a responsibility to maintain impartiality and we welcome any steps to ensure that that responsibility is reflected in their social media guidelines,” he added.