Own goal for BBC with Gary Lineker

The BBC’s row with Gary Lineker, former football player, public figure and current presenter of Match of the Day, dominated last weekend’s news. Although the main issues concern freedom of speech and impartiality, from an employment lawyer’s perspective, the facts also put into sharp focus the importance of staff policies.

The BBC announced that Lineker would “step back” from presenting Match Of The Day, after he posted several tweets which criticised the Government’s policy on immigration. His tweets said that the Migration Bill was “immeasurably cruel”. It was speculated that Gary was told to apologise for his tweets otherwise he would be prevented from presenting Match of the Day. He refused and was taken off air. Lineker is self-employed, and is not an employee of the BBC, although he is a face of the BBC (being their highest paid presenter over the last financial year).  The comments were made on a personal account (which is not affiliated to the BBC or Match of the Day).

So, what did he do wrong? The BBC’s ‘Personal use of social media’ policy acknowledges that staff can use social media within their personal capacity – but reminds them that the BBC must maintain its reputation for its objectivity.  It stipulates that “Staff should take reasonable steps to ensure their activity on social media platforms does not undermine the BBC’s, nor their own, professional impartiality or reputation and/or bring the organisation into disrepute”. Impartiality is also stressed in the BBC Guidelines.

Do the policies apply to Lineker? The answer is yes. The policies apply to everyone who works for the BBC. It’s clear that all staff must not undermine the impartiality of the BBC and avoid taking sides on political issues. If Lineker was an employee, there is a higher likelihood he could have faced formal disciplinary action and even dismissal for breaching the policies. As a self-employed freelancer his contract could be ’terminated’.

Whether or not this is the right or fair course of action is a different question. The question remains, and has been hotly debated, as to whether Lineker, as a sports presenter and commenting in his personal capacity, can and should be held to account.

The BBC’s approach proved unpopular and, after various high-profile individuals sided with Lineker, the BBC changed its position, apologising publicly with Lineker due to resume Match of the Day this Saturday. The BBC also announced that it is planning to review the social media guidelines.

Most employers have social media policies,  but this case shows the importance of reviewing and updating them. For employees, this is a reminder to always exercise caution when posting online. There have been a number of recent cases where employees have been dismissed for posting derogatory comments about their employer.

Written by Nicola Tager and Lucy Cinnamond.