Comment

The BBC is deluded to think it can ever tame Gary Lineker

He remains the BBC’s most expensive asset – but is the presenter-cum-activist likely to listen to reason, the public or Tim Davie?

What can you do?: Gary Lineker, pictured at an anti-Brexit rally, remains the BBC's highest-paid presenter
What can you do?: Gary Lineker, pictured at an anti-Brexit rally, remains the BBC's highest-paid presenter Credit: Getty

He’s somehow become one of the BBC’s most controversial presenters – quite an achievement for a squeaky-clean footballer who was famously never booked in his 16-year professional career – but Gary Lineker OBE has finally had his wings clipped.

The BBC’s freshly published list of star salaries confirms that the Match of the Day host remains its best-paid broadcaster. He earned a table-topping £1.75 million in 2018/19, and that sum is unchanged. However, the Corporation’s new director-general Tim Davie said that Lineker has now agreed to a pay cut – a new five-year contract worth a quarter less than his current one – which will be reflected on next year’s list. 

Davie described Lineker on Tuesday as “a brilliant broadcaster”, saying he was an example of “the best talent and the best value”. Crucially, though, he added: “And before you ask, Gary knows his responsibility to the BBC in terms of his use of social media.” 

Since taking over from the much-criticised Tony Hall, the director-general has declared a “war on woke”, including a crackdown on BBC staff using Twitter to push political causes. “If you want to be an opinionated columnist or a partisan campaigner on social media, then that is a valid choice, but you should not be working at the BBC,” he said in his opening speech to staff. New social-media rules for employees are expected to be announced soon.

Even so, Davie – himself paid a tidy £450,000 – and his superannuated colleagues are deluded if they think Lineker can be tamed. Within minutes of the list’s publication, the ex-footballer posted a string of Tweets, proving that he simply won’t be told. “Oh dear,” he said, attaching a press release about his new five-year deal. “Thoughts are with the haters at this difficult time.”

And when a journalist reported that his social-media use would be curbed, Lineker had a quick retort: 

He engaged in some tiresome “bantz” with regular sparring partner Piers Morgan until, nearly half an hour since that first smug tweet, remembering to appear humble. “On a serious note: absolutely delighted to continue working with the brilliant people at BBC Sport for another five years,” he said, belatedly.

Lineker might be a smooth sports presenter and safe pair of hands on live TV, but off-screen, he has long been a problem child. He has a history of tub-thumping on Twitter, and is openly defiant of impartiality policies. Yet even though it acknowledges the problem, the BBC keeps rewarding him for it. When a follower asked earlier this month if he was bothered by his new boss’s drive to eliminate bias, Lineker simply replied: “Nah.”

He has been outspoken about free school meals, the forcible removal of statues, press regulation and the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis. The Sun called for him to be sacked over tweets about immigration. He was so vocal in his opposition to Brexit that BBC cricket correspondent Jonathan Agnew even took him to task, writing: “Gary, you are the face of BBC Sport. Please observe BBC editorial guidelines and keep your political views to yourself. I’d be sacked if I followed your example.”

But Lineker continues to post partisan views to his 7.6 million followers, while his new contract will see him earn £6.75 million between now and 2025. Contrast this with Graham Norton, who just gets on with the job of entertaining people and gets paid more than £1 million less. 

The new director-general, Tim Davie, has vowed to shake up the Corporation Credit: Reuters

Davie’s balance-fixated new regime risks looking weak if it doesn’t rein in its star striker and top earner – not least because fellow BBC broadcasters are furious that they’ve been told to watch their lip (or their typing fingers). The Corporation’s annual report – its first under Davie – was published in an even more febrile atmosphere for the beleaguered BBC than usual. In the wake of the Proms fiasco, the controversial sacking of the Question of Sport team and debates about political impartiality, critics would always have combed the figures even more keenly than in previous years.

The top earners’ bill has soared by £1 million, which might make for a chewy headline but in the scheme of things is fairly negligible. The total cost of “on-air talent” (cue scoffing sounds) rose from £143.6 million in 2018/2019 to £144.7 million in 2019/2020 - an increase of a mere 0.08 per cent. 

Still, “the optics” (to use a BBC-esque piece of media jargon) are bad. Nuance tends to get lost in stories about high pay. At a time of huge hardship across the UK, such salaries will strike many licence-fee payers (particularly pensioners) as disgraceful. 

A whopping 76 presenters, for instance, earn more than the Prime Minister’s wage of £150,000. The report shows there are now two stars (Lineker and Zoe Ball) raking in more than £1 million, another (Graham Norton) earning between £500,000 and £1 million, and a further 73 on £150,000-plus. Nicely-remunerated work if you can get it.

It isn't clear, writes Michael Hogan, what difference June Sarpong has made at the BBC Credit: Rii Schroer

Four women now feature among the 10 highest earners. Alongside Zoe Ball in the list – whose pay has jumped to £1.36 million, making her the second-highest-paid presenter – is her Radio 2 colleague Vanessa Feltz, while Fiona Bruce and Lauren Laverne have also moved up. 

The top 10 earners are still all white, though, which remains a vexed issue. The BBC is struggling with the response to the Black Lives Matter movement and accusations of institutional racism. Staff from BAME backgrounds say there’s still not enough diversity at management level. The Corporation admits that it has missed its own target to have 15 per cent of leadership positions held by BAME staff by 2020. Its first “director of creative diversity”, ex-presenter June Sarpong, was appointed a year ago, but seems to have made a negligible difference. This remains a problem for Davie’s to-do pile.

In the meantime, he’s still saddled with Lineker – paid four times as much as his boss, while making a mockery of his social-media clampdown. Can the Leicester loose cannon continue to have his cake and eat it? Watch this Twitter space. You can be sure that Tim Davie will.