EXCLUSIVE: BBC Director General Tim Davie was in contact with a senior government official on the day he suspended Gary Lineker, raising questions about whether he was pressured to punish the presenter for breaking impartiality rules.
Documents obtained by Deadline reveal that Davie was in dialogue with Polly Payne, Director General of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), on March 10. Emails between the BBC and the DCMS show that Payne and Davie’s conversations were unscheduled.
The papers cast fresh light on the biggest crisis of Davie’s tenure after he suspended Match of the Day host Lineker for tweeting that government asylum policy had echoes of Nazi Germany. Lineker was swiftly reinstated three days later following a weekend of chaos, in which his colleagues effectively went on strike and BBC sports coverage fell off air.
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The revelation that Davie spoke to the DCMS has raised eyebrows among BBC staff, lawmakers, and Lineker’s allies, one of whom described evidence of the conversations as “explosive.” The corporation’s proximity to government has been under scrutiny following Richard Sharp’s resignation as Chairman in April over a Boris Johnson loan scandal.
It comes as the BBC prepares to publish an independent review of its social media rules for freelance stars led by former ITN Chief Executive John Hardie. Deadline understands that, ahead of publication, the BBC has attempted to establish whether Lineker will accept and abide by Hardie’s conclusions, despite the fact that they are yet to be finalized.
On the day Lineker was stood down, an assistant to DCMS official Payne emailed Davie’s office at 11.36AM to organize a call for later that day, according to a Freedom of Information Act disclosure. The assistant explained that “Polly has let us know that she and Tim have agreed to arrange a chat today,” suggesting that the Directors General had corresponded that morning about an impromptu call.
Read the full timeline here: Gary Lineker Crisis: BBC Director General’s Diary Details Timeline Of Impartiality Meltdown
Davie’s office was initially uncertain, partly because a call with Payne was already scheduled for the following week, and partly because the BBC chief had flown to Washington D.C. a day earlier. They eventually agreed that Payne could call Davie at 5.30PM UK time, less than an hour after the BBC announced that Lineker would “step back” from his presenting duties.
Earlier in the day, Lineker’s agent Jon Holmes was summoned to the BBC’s London headquarters at 2.30PM for talks about the presenter’s position. The BBC wanted Lineker to apologize but he refused. An announcement was made about the presenter’s suspension soon after 4.30PM and almost immediately, Lineker’s colleagues started stepping back in solidarity.
After the decision to suspend Lineker backfired, two sources said Holmes told Davie that employees were mutinous because they believed he had cowed to pressure from the government and conservative newspaper The Daily Mail. In a BBC interview at the height of the crisis, Davie said it was “absolutely not” the case that he was influenced by ministers and conservative press in taking action against Lineker.
A BBC insider said Davie’s decision to punish Lineker blindsided senior figures at the corporation, but they said it was unlikely that he was influenced by the government. This person acknowledged, however, that the timing of the exchanges with the DCMS were “not a good look” for a leader who is “fanatical” about impartiality.
The DCMS said it did not put pressure on the BBC to punish Lineker, but neither side denied that Davie and Payne discussed the former England footballer during their conversations on March 10.
A DCMS spokesman said: “The BBC is operationally and editorially independent from the government and we have no say on its day-to-day decisions or staffing matters. At no time have we sought to influence the BBC’s decisions on this matter.”
The BBC said: “There are meetings and discussions between ministers and government officials on a regular basis and we don’t offer a commentary on those meetings.”
John Nicolson, a Scottish National Party MP who sits on Parliament’s influential Culture, Media and Sport Committee, called on both parties to disclose the nature of their conversations.
“It’s intriguing to learn that the Director General had unscheduled conversations with the DCMS on the day Gary Lineker was suspended,” he said. “BBC Management clearly handled the Lineker suspension controversy very badly. I know BBC staff are concerned about government interference… perhaps Mr Davie might shed some light on whether he discussed Gary Lineker with the DCMS that day.”
The papers obtained by Deadline also reveal that Sharp, the outgoing BBC Chairman, met with Foreign Secretary James Cleverly the day before Lineker was punished. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office said the meeting was arranged to discuss the BBC World Service and at no point did Lineker come up in conversation.
Both Cleverly and Lucy Frazer, the Culture Secretary, made their feelings known about the Lineker affair before he was benched. Cleverly told LBC that Lineker’s tweet was “deeply offensive” and suggested he read his history books. Speaking in the House of Commons on March 9, Frazer said the comparison to Nazi Germany was “disappointing and inappropriate.”
Lineker was reinstated just three days after his suspension after Davie held a flurry of meetings with the presenter’s agent on March 12. He did not apologize for his tweet, which was a response to the government’s divisive “stop the boats” immigration policy. He described the policy as “immeasurably cruel” and accused the government of deploying language “that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”
Lineker, who is paid £1.35M ($1.7M) a year by the BBC, told The Rest Is Politics: Leading podcast that he thought he had a special agreement in which he could tweet about the refugee crisis and climate change. “I put this in that category,” he said. “All my argument here was: let’s have some empathy towards these poor people that are forced to flee persecution and war.”
Lineker declined to comment.
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