Taken at face value, the “I am Spartacus” response to Gary Lineker’s Match of the Day ban last week was a principled display of solidarity by his BBC colleagues.
Led by Ian Wright and Alan Shearer, one big name after another downed microphones to stand behind Lineker in his row with Tim Davie, the director general.
On Twitter and in TV and radio studios, righteous fury against BBC management was whipped up by master of spin Alastair Campbell.
Lineker later told his family the show of support, particularly from Wright and Shearer, had left him tearful.
Whether it came as a complete surprise is another matter. Shearer, Wright and Campbell are among the many famous names, many of them BBC regulars, who top up their pay by working for Lineker’s production companies.
In all, more than a dozen current or former BBC broadcasters have worked on podcasts or television programmes made by Lineker’s Goalhanger film and podcast companies. Others share the same agent as Lineker, including two of Match of the Day’s most established commentators.
Lineker’s arrangement with the BBC means that he too is able to top up his £1.35 million salary, by far the highest of any BBC presenter.
No one has tried to make any secret of the various deals, and Campbell in particular makes repeated references to the fact that his The Rest Is Politics podcast – co-hosted by Rory Stewart, a former Tory leadership candidate – is produced by Goalhanger Podcasts, of which Lineker is the biggest shareholder.
The events of the past fortnight have, though, raised fresh questions about the BBC’s relationship with Lineker, 62, whose connections with some colleagues – including financial links in many cases – run deeper than simply sharing the same studio.
The symbiotic relationship between Lineker and some of his colleagues means his influence at the BBC is greater than simply that of a famous name with a large fan base, adding an extra layer of intrigue to his standoff with Mr Davie last week.
Wright, showing the turn of pace that made him an Arsenal legend, was quickest off the mark when the BBC announced on Friday last week that Lineker would be “stepping back” from his Match of the Day duties following the row over his tweets about the Government’s migration policy.
He wrote on Twitter:
An hour later, Shearer tweeted that he had told the BBC he too was refusing to appear, and Micah Richards, who has become a near-permanent fixture on Saturday’s edition of Match of the Day, tweeted that he was not due to be working on the show the following day, “but if I was, I would find myself taking the same decision that [Wright] and [Shearer] have”.
All three are current or former pundits on the Match of the Day Top 10 podcast, which is broadcast on BBC One and BBC Sounds, and is made by Goalhanger Podcasts (named after Lineker’s playing days, when he would hang near the goalmouth waiting for chances to come his way).
The BBC confirmed that Shearer and Richards (and previously Wright) are paid by Goalhanger, which is in turn paid by BBC Sport using licence fee money.
Wright has also appeared in programmes made by Goalhanger Films, of which Lineker is a director. Between 2016 and 2019, Goalhanger and the BBC co-produced The Premier League Show, which was hosted by Gabby Logan and featured interviews conducted by Match of the Day pundits Jermaine Jenas (seen by some at the BBC as the likely heir to Lineker’s seat) and Dion Dublin, as well as Trevor Sinclair, former BBC Sports presenter Dan Walker and current commentator Steve Bower.
As with the podcasts, Goalhanger is paid by the BBC, which in turn pays those who appear on the programmes.
In 2020 Lineker took a well-publicised pay cut from his previous salary of £1.75 million, but has been able to soften the blow by topping up his earnings via Goalhanger.
The BBC has not disclosed how much the Goalhanger companies are paid, and details of their revenue are not contained in Companies House filings.
Bower is one of two Match of the Day commentators represented by Jon Holmes, who has been Lineker’s agent for more than 40 years. The other is Guy Mowbray, who tweeted last Saturday that he was “very proud of the solidarity shown by the MOTD team”.
The following day, Mowbray updated football fans by saying that there would be no commentary on Match of the Day 2’s football coverage, and that “the scheduled commentary team are in full agreement with our BBC Sport colleagues. We hope that a resolution can be found ASAP”.
It was retweeted by Bower with a “fingers crossed” emoji. Also in Holmes’s stable is Stephen Warnock, a former Liverpool player who is another pundit on Match of the Day.
Mowbray’s suggestion that there was “full agreement” among BBC Sport staff over the weekend walkout was not quite accurate.
Some, particularly on Radio 5 Live, did turn up for work last Saturday, including commentators Ian Dennis, John Southall and Alastair Bruce-Ball. Dennis told listeners on Saturday afternoon that it was a “difficult time” for everyone working in BBC Sport, but as a “staff member” he had decided to do what he does every weekend and “provide a service to you, the audience”.
That audience, of course, is made up of licence fee payers, who fund the salaries of Dennis and Southall, as well as Lineker, Shearer and the rest.
Behind the scenes, sympathy with Lineker was far from universal. Some BBC staff felt he had overstepped the mark with his tweet comparing the Government’s migration policy to the language of 1930s Germany, while others felt anything but solidarity with multi-millionaire ex-footballers who do not have to worry about paying mortgages and supporting families on modest salaries.
Union reps had advised BBC workers that because the walk-out was not an official strike they would not be covered by employment law, leaving them in a vulnerable position if managers decided to make an example of them. Their reward for doing the right thing for their audience was to be called “scabs” on social media.
One well-placed source said: “This has exposed a clear split between the highest-paid talent and those staffers who have been delivering week in and out for decades. It’s a disgrace that the likes of Ali Bruce-Ball ended up getting criticism for this.
“The 5 Live commentary team are among the most popular members of staff within BBC Sport. They should not have been getting it in the neck for turning up to work.”
Some members of staff undoubtedly did feel genuine loyalty towards Lineker, while others were motivated by a desire to back his stance on the freedom to express his views, or on the issue of migration itself.
Others, however, stayed away from work because they feared being the subject of social media pile-ons if they dared to go against Lineker, Campbell and his influential supporters.
Some BBC staff have made the point that Lineker could have used his captive audience on Twitter or during the daily doorstepping of his home by journalists to express support for colleagues who were keeping BBC Sport on air in his absence or to acknowledge the position they had been put in.
Instead it was Match of the Day 2 presenter Mark Chapman, who had joined the boycott, who spoke up for those putting their loyalty to the BBC ahead of their loyalty to Lineker.
As for the future, Lineker’s contract expires in 2025 and there have already been hints that he might give up Match of the Day to concentrate on his growing production empire.
A BBC spokesman said: “Gary is a freelance presenter and his BBC pay for that role is published annually, under transparency obligations in the BBC Charter.
“This is entirely separate to any programmes the BBC commissions from Goalhanger Productions, an independent production company. The BBC works with hundreds of independent production companies in line with our published guidelines on commissioning. Independent production companies are responsible for their own budgets.”
Additional reporting by Anita Singh