Gary Lineker versus the BBC. A case study in creative leadership

March 17, 2023

March 13 2023

The news headlines for the past week have been dominated by a dispute between the BBC superstar football broadcaster Gary Lineker and his employers. To be more precise, Gary is a contracted freelance broadcaster not a permanent member of staff. This is a detail which may have added a complication to what is already a complex case.

Other figures who became involved were the Director General of the BBC, Tim Davie, the chairman of the BBC board, Richard Sharp, the Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, and the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak.

A critical event which makes a convenient starting point is a tweet by Gary Lineker strongly condemning the language and content of the immigration bill being introduced into Parliament by the Home Secretary Suella Braverman.
He described the bill as immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people, and in language ‘that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s’ As was inevitable, his tweet produced a storm of discussion both for and against his tweet. His supporters broadly took the free speech argument . Opponents claimed he had himself deployed hate speech, by describing the government as operating with the methods of the Nazis.

Tim Davie announced he was speaking to Lineker formally. When he refused to apologise, the BBC suspended Gary from presenting Match Of The Day, the flagship football program of the BBC. Davie stated that this was a measured response while the issue was being further investigated.

By then the story was attracting interest in the MSM, Social Media, and particularly in the BBC itself with stories about the suspension.

Before the next episode of MOTD was broadcast, the other presenters of MOTD announced they were withdrawing from the programme. Other journalists also withheld their contributions to football broadcasts.

Eventually, a very truncated program was broadcast without commentators. The political implications sharpened when the Prime Minister gave only the coolest support to the actions of the BBC. This was interpreted as distancing himself from Tim Davie leading to speculation that Davie’s job was far from secure.

Over the weekend, the BBC filled its radio and television news programs with discussion about the developing drama, but with a few suggestions of how it might resolve itself.
The Chairman of the BBC was unavailable for comment.

During this period, the Daily Telegraph, generally a flagship Conservative newspaper was running a series of revelations leaked by Conservative journalist of highly confidential exchanges which revealed Ministers struggling to cope with the COVID crisis.

The BBC position was not helped with the reemergence of an unresolved story of the Chairman Richard Sharp involved in securing a loan for Boris Johnson at the time his application as Chairman was being considered, a process over which Johnson was the ultimate arbiter.

Recommended for the post by Boris Johnson, Richard Sharp was appointed one month after being a Director of the Centre for Policy Studies, which during his time published several reports critical of the BBC recommending root & branch change.

The appointment of Tim Davie as Director General had also been and remained controversial. He has made no secret of his concern that the impartiality of the BBC was endangered by what he say as a left wing bias in much of the programming. Critics have been quick to point to his own background as a conservative one.

Commentators of the complex situation had little to offer. Either the BBC (increasingly personified as Tim Davie) would have to concede and return Lineker to his position, or Lineker would have accept he has no right to tweet about the Govt’s immigration policy.

We have a classic dilemma of leadership. The view of overwhelming number of commentators in the news and social media is that it is a clear case of right versus wrong. An either or dilemma.

Braverman continued to insist that her Illegal Immigrants Bill was a necessity to ‘stop the boats’.
Lineker supporters continued assert he was in the right, and that her actions were morally wrong, illegal and unworkable.

What happened? The BBC went back on its position to suspend Lineker while a formal investigation took place. Normal service was resumed (Sorry, couldn’t resist that old joke).

But the most revealing comment was made again on Twitter by Gary Lineker. He tweeted his pleasure at returning to work, particularly thanking Tim Davie for dealing with a hideously complicated situation.

In that, he revealed for me an essential aspect of creative leadership. A skill at escaping either or dilemmas, and encouraging others around him to do the same.