Gary Lineker must be impartial as he hosts ‘important’ show, says ex-BBC boss
Former director-general Lord Birt has said presenters such as Gary Lineker who are “inextricably bound up with an important BBC programme” should have to abide by impartiality rules.
The executive, who led the BBC between 1992 and 2000, appeared before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS) as part of a session in the wake of the pundit and former England player’s three-day suspension from Match Of The Day.
Lineker was taken off by the BBC after posting a tweet in which he said the language used by the Government to promote its asylum plans was not dissimilar to 1930s Germany, but was returned following a boycott by top on-air talent.
Lord Birt, 78, told the committee he hoped the BBC’s ongoing review about its social media guidelines, which will look at the responsibilities of freelancers such as Lineker, offered “crystal clarity” to its employees.
Asked whether he thought viewers appreciated the difference between news staff and freelancers, Lord Birt said: “I am sure the public doesn’t even think about it.
“What it knows is that this (Match Of The Day) is one of the most important BBC programmes and this is a well established presenter.
“And yes, he was one of England’s great centre-forwards but let’s not kid ourselves.
“His status, his standing and his power arises above all else from presenting this extremely important programme.”
Lord Birt added that he did not think it was “legitimate and right” that a BBC presenter of “such an important programme should opine”.
He asked the committee to imagine a presenter of Strictly Come Dancing, another flagship BBC show, who was “passionately opposed to immigration” and spoke openly about stopping small boats.
“I would take the same view of both examples,” he added.
“It doesn’t matter whether it comes from the left or right.
“I don’t think it is appropriate for a BBC presenter, certainly of news which everybody seems to agree with, but any presenter who is inextricably bound up with an important BBC programme.”
Acknowledging public opinion over Lineker’s tweet was split, Lord Birt added: “I don’t ever think the damage in respect to the BBC is terminal because it has got too much credit in the bank.
“This is an issue that needs resolving and the speedier it is resolved the better – and I wish it had been resolved more speedily.
“In one way or another, it is going to be resolved, we will all move on, and I have no doubt whatsoever that at the end of this the BBC’s absolute commitment to impartiality will remain intact.”
He also addressed BBC chairman Richard Sharp, who is facing pressure to resign amid an ongoing review after it emerged that he helped former prime minister Boris Johnson secure an £800,000 loan facility.
Lord Birt said: “I don’t think his appointment should stand.
“He is a person of obvious weight and consequence but in one vital respect he was an unsuitable candidate and the appointment process itself was fatally flawed.”
During the DCMS committee meeting, the former chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, added that he would find it “very difficult” to defend the BBC’s impartiality rules currently if he was in Mr Sharp’s position.
The former Conservative minister and governor of Hong Kong praised the BBC’s current director general Tim Davie as a “terrific guy” who will handle this complex situation “very well”, but questioned how his chairman is assisting him.
“I think there are some occasions when you have a right as a chief executive, you have a right to have the chairman’s hand on your shoulder and the chairman taking some of the flak, I think that’s what your chairman is supposed to do”, he said.
“I also happen to think that Gary Lineker, as well as being a very good broadcaster, is highly intelligent and doesn’t say things which aren’t the result, I’m sure, of a good deal of reason and assembly of evidence.”