EXCLUSIVE: The BBC failed to fully heed advice in 2020 that could have helped the broadcaster avoid a weekend of carnage over a single tweet from Gary Lineker, its highest-paid presenter.
A review of the BBC’s social media guidelines three years ago recommended that it specifically examine rules for freelance presenters such as Lineker, who hosts the popular Premier League highlights program Match of the Day.
The revelation is likely to raise further questions about BBC Director-General Tim Davie’s handling of the Lineker saga, given he admitted today that there are “grey areas” in its guidance for freelancers. Lineker earns £1.35M ($1.62M) a year from the BBC in addition to other work, including running WME-backed podcast producer Goalhanger.
Richard Sambrook, a former BBC News executive and emeritus professor of journalism at Cardiff University, was engaged in 2020 to help draw up new social media rules for BBC journalists.
Sources said Sambrook delivered around a dozen recommendations to Davie and senior managers, one of which was to carry out a separate review of guidance for freelance presenters outside of news.
There is concern that his advice was not fully acted upon because it could have created complications with presenter contracts in a fiercely competitive market for on-screen talent.
Sambrook’s report was never published by the BBC, meaning there is no public record of his findings and recommendations, other than the social media rules introduced following his work.
The BBC inserted a brief paragraph into its social media rules to cover non-news stars like Lineker. It states that presenters have “additional responsibility” to the BBC on social media and should “avoid taking sides on party political issues.”
Davie has now acknowledged this does not go far enough by launching a fresh review that will examine “existing social media guidance, with a particular focus on how it applies to freelancers outside news and current affairs.”
It suggests current rules are open to interpretation, meaning Lineker was able to post a tweet last Tuesday drawing parallels between the UK’s immigration strategy and rhetoric deployed in 1930s Germany as the Nazis came to power.
One source told Deadline that the social media rules introduced in 2020 were not fully reflected in a five-year contract Lineker signed before the guidelines came into force. This person said social media use should be built into presenter contracts to avoid a repeat of the past few days.
“Those guidelines were manifestly never reflected in the contract, nor probably those of the other many freelancers on BBC Sport,” said the source. “If the BBC had fired him, they would have incurred the full whack of paying him out of the contract. Gary was never going to not honor his contract.”
Lineker was suspended on Friday, sparking a weekend of chaos at the BBC as scores of his colleagues effectively went on strike, derailing Premier League output across TV and radio.
The BBC’s decision to stand down Lineker led to accusations that social media rules were being applied inconsistently because other presenters had not been punished for tweeting political views.
Many pointed out that Lord Sugar, the outspoken host of The Apprentice UK, was not disciplined after urging people to vote Conservative and mocking former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. As a “pan-BBC figure,” the BBC stressed that Lineker should be held to a higher standard than the likes of Sugar, who only hosts one show.
A BBC News insider said managers have repeatedly been warned about holes in social media rules. “Literally everyone with a brain and knowledge of social media said the current ones were contradictory and unclear when management imposed them. But they just carried on,” the person said.
Tim Davie Weakened By Lineker Saga
Several BBC insiders said Davie had been badly damaged by the crisis and there is a general view among employees that Lineker has emerged victorious.
“One more impartiality f***k up and that’s him [done],” said one person. A second source added: “He’s mishandled it terribly. Lineker 1 – BBC 0, Tim Davie own goal.”
Although Lineker tweeted his thanks to Davie and said he has an “almost impossible job,” a third source pointed out that the Match of the Day host has not apologized for or deleted his tweet.
Davie acted quickly today after returning from Washington DC over the weekend, but his trip overseas complicated matters.
Sources said Barbara Slater, BBC Director of Sport, and Charlotte Moore, Chief Content Officer, were both heavily involved in efforts to resolve the Lineker issue, but they were not always in agreement.
“All these different views made it take so long for a clear BBC position to emerge,” said a fourth person, who was familiar with the negotiations. “There was lots of territorialism and that could continue.”
Others said the presence of Richard Sharp, the BBC Chairman, had complicated the Lineker crisis. Sharp is a Conservative Party donor who helped facilitate a loan guarantee for former Prime Minister Boris Johnson while he was applying for his BBC role.
“The Sharp issue is ever more toxic and we can’t be seen to tolerate a right-wing leader but push out a liberal voice,” said a senior BBC manager after Lineker’s suspension.
Numerous sources pointed out that Sharp has remained quiet over the Lineker affair and there is growing political pressure on him to resign amid an investigation into the Johnson loan.
Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, told ITV News: “I think Richard Sharp’s position is increasingly untenable. I think most people watching the complete mess of the last few days would say ‘How on earth is he still in position and Gary Lineker has been taken off air?’.”
The BBC board, chaired by Sharp, welcomed Davie’s new social media review. “Impartiality is a cornerstone of the BBC,” it said. “We believe this is the right time to look at the clarity of the BBC’s social media guidance and how it is applied. We will support the executive in its continuing work to ensure the organisation delivers world-class, impartial content for all audiences.”