Gary Lineker’s urgent talks with BBC ‘inching forward’ as schedule chaos continues

The BBC is locked in urgent talks with Gary Lineker to get him back to work and end the staff boycott that has crippled the broadcaster’s weekend sports schedule, The Independent understands.

Senior sources at the BBC said that talks with the Match of the Day host were “inching forward”, with the aim of getting Lineker back to work this week. A breakthrough would be announced immediately if reached.

BBC director general Tim Davie has made it clear he wants to see the presenter back on air after he was suspended on Friday for comparing the government’s asylum crackdown to 1930s Germany.

His suspension led to dozens of pundits, commentators and presenters staging a mutiny, causing its weekend sports coverage to descend into chaos – with the BBC forced to axe Football Focus, Fighting Talk and Final Score from its schedule.

Match of the Day was replaced on Saturday night by a shortened highlights reel featuring no commentary and without studio punditry, with Sunday’s Match of the Day 2 also set to air without presenters.

Gary Lineker outside his house on Sunday (Reuters)
Gary Lineker outside his house on Sunday (Reuters)

Lineker, who has not made any public statements since being taken off air, was tight-lipped as he left his home on Sunday, telling reporters “I can’t say anything” when asked if he had spoken to Mr Davie.

His son George, however, tweeted his support for his father on Sunday, saying: “Proud of the old man after a busy few days. Shouldn't need to apologise for being a good person and standing by his word. The reaction of the public has been overwhelming. Thanks for the support.”

Talks come after The Independent revealed the BBC fears it cannot sack Lineker or force him to follow social media rules on impartiality because of ambiguities in his contract. The corporation would be forced to pay millions if they wanted to oust Lineker and would probably lose any legal claim brought by the Match of the Day presenter, senior figures believe.

In his first interview since the fallout, Mr Davie apologised for the disruption caused to the corporation’s coverage while praising Lineker as “the best in the business” and said he wants to find a “reasonable solution” to get him back on air.

However, despite one of the biggest meltdowns in the corporation’s history, Mr Davie said he would he will not resign. “As a keen sports fan, I know like everyone that to miss programming is a real blow and I am sorry about that. We are working very hard to resolve the situation and make sure that we get output back on air,” Mr Davie said.

Match of the Day 2 is also expected to be cut to a shorter programme (BBC/Pete Dadds)
Match of the Day 2 is also expected to be cut to a shorter programme (BBC/Pete Dadds)

The BBC’s coverage of the Women’s Super League match between Chelsea and Manchester United on Sunday aired without a pre-match presentation and with world feed commentary used instead of regular BBC presenters.

For a second day, Radio 5 Live also replaced its usual live sports coverage with pre-recorded content. The station did provide match commentary from its two scheduled Premier League games on Sunday afternoon but the sports presenter Alistair Bruce-Ball admitted it had been a “very difficult decision” to come on air.

Ahead of the Fulham game against Arsenal, Mr Bruce-Ball said: “It’s been a very difficult decision to make personally – I can assure you it’s not been taken lightly – but I’m a BBC staff member, I’m a radio commentator for this station and, just like yesterday, we are here to provide our football service to you, our audience.”

Former BBC executive Peter Salmon, who was previously controller of BBC One and director of sport, told Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg the situation is “complex” and Lineker is a “major figure”. He added: “Twenty-five years on ‘Match of the Day’ – he’s more than just a TV presenter, he’s a national figure.

“He’s got views, he’s got passions, he’s been involved in looking after Ukrainian refugees. It may be that Gary’s outgrown the job and the role in the BBC. Twenty-five years in, before that Des Lynam, Gary took over, he’s been brilliant. Sometimes there’s a point at which you cross the line.”

Former BBC director-general Mark Thompson said he “absolutely hopes” and “believes” Mr Davie will survive the impartiality row surrounding Lineker. Asked by Kuenssberg whether he thinks the presenter will be back on air by Sunday night, he replied: “I hope so.”

On whether the TV pundit should apologise, he told Sky News Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “I don’t agree with his comments and I personally think that he was wrong to say what he said, but I don’t think it’s for me to decide how that issue is resolved.”