The BBC has been accused of allowing “open season” on politicians with new social media guidelines that enable Gary Lineker and other controversial presenters to keep airing their views.
The corporation has issued a list of “crown jewel” programmes whose hosts must adhere to certain restrictions.
Lineker, as presenter of Match of the Day, can continue to share his views on political issues of the day, provided he does not endorse or attack political parties, or criticise individual politicians.
The rules only apply to the time that the flagship programmes are on air, plus a two-week window on either side - meaning that Lineker is free to post what he likes on social media outside the football season.
Chris Packham, one of the BBC’s most divisive and outspoken figures, is not covered by the restrictions because Springwatch is not on the list of flagship shows.
Instead it comprises The Apprentice (Lord Sugar), Antiques Roadshow (Fiona Bruce), Dragon’s Den (Evan Davis), The One Show (Alex Jones), MasterChef (John Torode and Gregg Wallace), Match of the Day (Lineker and Mark Chapman), Strictly Come Dancing (Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman) and Top Gear (whose presenters are to be confirmed as the programme is currently off air following Freddie Flintoff’s crash).
BBC radio hosts Greg James, Zoe Ball, Vernon Kay and Scott Mills are also included.
The BBC compiled the list on the recommendation of John Hardie, a former TV executive who was brought in to update social media guidelines after a row over Lineker’s tweets.
Lineker declared the new guidelines to be “all very sensible”.
But Richard Ayre, the BBC’s former head of editorial policy, said on BBC News: “The fact that Gary Lineker has welcomed these guidelines tells you quite about what Gary thinks about them.
“I think that he must believe that they empower him to say pretty much what he has already said.
“I suspect Gary will feel able to continue to say the sort of things he said before. I think it probably is a win for Gary Lineker.”
The Match of the Day host tweeted about politics on Wednesday when he implicitly criticised Suella Braverman’s stance on asylum seekers.
He shared a clip of the Home Secretary claiming that some people game the system by pretending to be gay, and wrote: “How could you possibly know if they are gay or not gay?”
How could you possibly know if they are gay or they are not gay? https://t.co/7FZ7AwzaOX
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) September 27, 2023
By wording it as a question and not explicitly attacking the Government or Ms Braverman, Lineker stayed within the guidelines.
Brendan Clarke Smith, Tory MP for Bassetlaw, said: “This is effectively open season for presenters to say what they like, when they like, regardless of the nature of the programme they present.
“Other than explicitly saying ‘vote for Labour’ they don’t appear to have any restrictions at all. Everybody is entitled to their opinions, but when it’s a publicly funded broadcaster I think licence fee payers should be able to expect a certain degree of neutrality and professionalism.”
The fallout from Lineker’s tweet in March, which drew parallels between the Government’s migrant policy and the language of Nazi Germany, led to the presenter being suspended and his BBC Sport colleagues walking out in solidarity.
Tim Davie, the director-general, capitulated and invited him back.
Under the new guidelines, it is unclear whether that tweet would be acceptable, but Mr Hardie said in his review that “it is best for all parties to start with a clean slate and not indulge in a contest to say who was proven right”.
There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order?
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) March 7, 2023
As part of his review, Mr Hardie spoke to BBC journalists who expressed “frustration” and “anger” that there appeared to be one rule for non-news presenters and another for them.
“It makes my job much harder when high-profile BBC people are mouthing off opinions,” said one, speaking anonymously.
Another said of Lineker: “Why is his need to express such a controversial view greater than [his] love for the organisation that built his broadcast career?”
Mr Hardie reported that he had encountered, “time and time again, the complaint that some high-profile talent ‘get away with things we could not’.”
Presenters of flagship brands have been handed the equivalent of a “Ming vase” and must do all they can to protect it, Mr Hardie said.
Under the new guidance, those presenters must not endorse or attack a political party, criticise the character of individual politicians in the UK or comment on matters of political debate during election periods.
Everyone working for the BBC must conduct themselves with “civility” on social media.
Tim Davie said: “We all have a responsibility to treat people with civility and respect, particularly at a time when public debate and discussion, both on and offline, can be so polarised. The BBC also has important commitments to freedom of expression and impartiality – and this rightly extends to social media.
“I would therefore like to thank John Hardie, and all those who took part in this review, for such a thorough, clear and considered report.
“Clarity on how those working for the BBC use social media is not only important for them and the organisation, but also for our audiences. The new guidance, which includes new requirements for presenters of our flagship programmes, is both proportionate and fair and protects these commitments.”