The BBC’s sports department was thrown into chaos on Saturday when commentators refused to support presenter Gary Lineker, who was suspended after criticizing the government’s new migration policy.
The 62-year-old compared the language used to launch the new policy on Twitter to that of Nazi-era Germany, which the BBC said on Friday was a “breach of our guidelines”.
The broadcaster said Lineker will “take a step back” from presenting Match of the Day – a Saturday night match since 1964 and the longest-running football television program in the world – until it takes a clear stance on its use of social media.
The decision sparked a wave of condemnation from hosts and fellow guests who boycotted their duties for Saturday’s football game, forcing the broadcaster to decimate its scheduled programming in television and radio output.
Pundits and former England forwards Ian Wright and Alan Shearer tweeted that they would not be reprising their usual role in Match of the Day, followed by the programme’s commentators.
Everyone knows what Match of the Day means to me, but I’ve told the BBC I won’t be doing it tomorrow. Solidarity.
— Ian Wright (@IanWright0) March 10, 2023
I have informed the BBC that I will not be appearing on MOTD tomorrow night.
— Alan Shearer (@alanshearer) March 10, 2023
Wright then said on his Saturday podcast that he would leave the BBC if Lineker was fired for good.
The BBC’s move sparked a debate over free speech, as well as a wave of criticism from politicians and public figures, many of whom accused of giving in to demands from Conservative lawmakers.
“It is absolutely insane that Britain has become a country where having an opinion can cost you your job. If we don’t cherish and vigorously protect freedom of expression, even for views we personally despise, we are no better than totalitarian regimes like China and North Korea,” said TV host Piers Morgan.
It is absolutely insane that Britain has become a country where having an opinion can cost you your job. If we do not cherish and fiercely protect freedom of speech, even for views we personally despise, we are no better than totalitarian regimes such as China and North Korea.
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) March 11, 2023
Labor Party leader Keir Starmer accused the BBC of “giving in” to the demands of Conservative Party members.
“The BBC is not acting impartially by giving in to Tory MPs complaining about Gary Lineker,” Starmer said.
Despite the deepening crisis, the BBC’s director-general Tim Davie said he would not resign.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the dispute was a matter for the broadcaster, not the government.
“I hope the current situation between Gary Lineker and the BBC can be resolved in a timely manner, but it is rightly a matter for them, not the government,” he said in a statement.
‘Huge own goal’
The BBC announced that the highlights show would be broadcast without experts or presenter for the first time.
It also said players would not be asked for interviews after some stated they would not be available to support Lineker.
Weekend preview show Football Focus and results program Final Score were also removed from the schedule due to presenters and experts dropping out.
The Saturday sports schedules for BBC Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were also changed.
“We are sorry for these changes, which we recognize will be disappointing to BBC sports fans,” the broadcaster said. “We are working hard to resolve the situation and hope to do so soon.”
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) described the move against Lineker as a “massive BBC own goal”.
NUJ Secretary General Michelle Stanistreet added: “Giving in to sustained political pressure in this way is as foolish as it is dangerous.”
Lineker is a freelance broadcaster for the BBC, not a permanent member of staff, and is not responsible for any news or political content, so is not subject to the same strict rules of impartiality as news staff.
The row was sparked by Lineker’s response to a video in which Home Secretary Suella Braverman revealed plans to prevent asylum seekers from crossing the Channel in small boats.
Lineker, the BBC’s highest paid star, wrote on Twitter: “This is simply an immeasurably cruel policy targeting the most vulnerable in a language not unlike that of Germany in the 1930s.”
The Conservative government plans to ban asylum applications from all irregular arrivals and transfer them to other countries, such as Rwanda, in a bid to halt border crossings, which totaled more than 45,000 last year.
Some 36 Tory lawmakers have sent a letter to the BBC warning that the affair will “undoubtedly erode many people’s already fragile confidence in the company’s impartiality”.