Mike Egerton / PA via AP
LONDON – The BBC has been forced to cancel its weekend sports programming in a bid to contain a growing crisis over the suspension of football host Gary Lineker for comments criticizing the British government’s new asylum policy.
As a growing number of English Premier League players and BBC presenters rallied in support of Lineker and refused to appear on the airwaves on Saturday, Britain’s national broadcaster faced accusations of political bias and stifling free speech , as well as praise from some conservative politicians.
The broadcaster said it would air only “limited sports programming” this weekend, with several of its popular sports show hosts refusing to appear in solidarity with Lineker. The former England captain was suspended from “Match of the Day”, a popular football highlights show, over a Twitter post that compared MPs’ language about migrants to that used in Nazi Germany.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made his first comments on the storm, saying: “Gary Lineker was a great footballer and a talented presenter. I hope that the current situation between Gary Lineker and the BBC can be resolved in a timely manner, but This is a matter for them, not for the government.”
Instead of extensive coverage on Saturdays of the most popular league in the world, the BBC had no preview shows on radio or TV and no early evening summaries of the final scores of Premier League games. The lunchtime TV program “Football Focus” was replaced with a rerun episode of the antique show “Bargain Hunt”, while “Final Score” was swapped for “The Repair Shop” in the evening.
Football fans tuning in for “Match of the Day” – the late-night program that has been a British institution for 60 years – will get a 20-minute show instead of the shows that usually last around an hour and a half. There will be no commentary on matches and no studio punditry from some of the most high-profile stars in British sport who have chosen to support Lineker and not officiate.
There will also be no player interviews after the match. The Professional Footballers’ Association stated that some players wanted to boycott the show, and as a result “players involved in today’s games will not be asked to take part in ‘Match of the Day’ interviews”.
The union said it was a “common sense solution” to avoid players facing sanctions for breaching broadcast commitments.
The BBC said it was “sorry to make these changes which we believe will be disappointing for BBC sports fans. We are working hard to resolve the situation and hope to do so soon.”
Lineker, 62, was already a household name in Britain before becoming the main “Match of the Day” presenter in 1999.
One of English football’s most admired players, he was the leading scorer at the 1986 World Cup and finished his international career with 48 goals in 80 appearances for England.
After retiring from a career that included stints with Barcelona, Tottenham, Everton and Leicester, Lineker has become one of the UK’s most influential media figures and the BBC’s highest-paid star, earning £1.35 million ($1.6 million) last year. ) earn.
An avid social media user with 8.7 million Twitter followers, Lineker has long upset right-wing politicians and activists with his liberal views, including criticism of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.
The latest controversy began on Tuesday with a tweet from Lineker’s account, which described the government’s plan to detain and deport boat migrants as “an extremely brutal policy directed at the most vulnerable”. Which is not dissimilar to the language used by Germany in the 30s.”
The Conservative government called Lineker’s Nazi comparison offensive and unacceptable, and some MPs said he should be fired.
In his statement on Saturday, Sunak reiterated his party’s policy.
“As prime minister,” he said, “I have to do what I believe is right, respecting that not everyone will always agree. That is why I am consistent in my approach to stopping the boats.” I’ve been clear.”
Sunak said that “this is the only way to break this cycle of suffering once and for all.”
“There are no easy answers to solve this problem,” he said, “but I do believe that leadership is about making tough decisions to fix problems. I know that everyone always I will not agree, but I believe it is just and right.”
On Friday, the BBC said Lineker would “withdraw” from “Match of the Day” until “his agreed and clear position on the use of social media” is reached. Lineker has yet to comment publicly, and on Saturday traveled to his hometown of Leicester to watch Leicester City play Chelsea in the Premier League. He was greeted by bystanders as he arrived at the match, which Chelsea won 3–1.
The 100-year-old BBC, which is funded by a license fee paid by all households with a television, has a duty to be impartial in its news coverage, and BBC news staff are barred from expressing political opinions .
Lineker, as a freelancer who does not work in news or current affairs, is not bound by the same rules, and has occasionally crossed the boundaries of BBC acceptability. Last year, the BBC found Lineker had breached neutrality rules by tweeting about alleged Russian donations to the Conservatives.
BBC neutrality has come under scrutiny over recent revelations that its chairman, Richard Sharpe – a Conservative Party donor – helped arrange a loan for then-prime minister Boris Johnson in 2021, with Sharpe on the government’s recommendation that the BBC Was appointed to the post.
Former BBC director-general Greg Dyke said the network had “undermined its own credibility” by bowing to government pressure.
Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labor Party, said the BBC was bowing to political pressure from Conservative MPs.
“They got it horribly wrong and now they are very, very exposed,” he said.