Mr. Lineker, 62, is no ordinary contractor, of course. He is perhaps the BBC’s biggest name, a beloved sports figure who made a smooth transition from the playing field to the broadcasting booth, where he has been a weekly fixture since 1999, analyzing games and shooting the breeze with other retired sports stars. He is the BBC’s highest-paid on-air personality, earning 1.35 million pounds, about $1.6 million, in 2022.
But Mr. Lineker, who grew up in a working-class family in Leicester, has never kept his views on social issues a secret. When the government announced strict new immigration plans to cut down on asylum seekers, he posted on Twitter, “This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order?”
The British home secretary, Suella Braverman, who is spearheading the policy to stop migrants from crossing the English Channel in small boats, said that Mr. Lineker’s comments diminished the atrocities of the Holocaust. Other Conservative lawmakers said that he had misused his BBC platform — not for the first time — to voice a political opinion.
“We need to make sure we maintain that trust in the independence and impartiality of the BBC,” the chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, said on Sunday to a BBC journalist, Laura Kuenssberg.
The BBC is not the only media organization to hit turbulence over questions about political expression and social media. Tensions have flared at British newspapers, as well as at The Washington Post and The New York Times, over the Twitter posts of journalists, sometimes critical of their own employers.
“This is a period of social change, where public attitudes toward the media and social media are rapidly evolving,” said Mark Thompson, a former director general of the BBC who was later the chief executive of The New York Times Company. “Editorial teams around the world are racing to catch up.”
What makes Mr. Lineker’s case especially complicated is both his job status — he is a contractor, not a full-time employee, who works for BBC Sports as opposed to BBC News — and the broadcaster’s enforcement of its social media guidelines, which critics say is haphazard at best and hypocritical at worst.