BBC crisis intensifies as players, stars rally behind Lineker
LONDON (AP) — The BBC has been forced to ax most of its weekend sports programming as the network scrambles to contain a escalating crisis over the suspension of soccer host Gary Lineker for criticizing the British government’s new asylum policy.
Britain’s national broadcaster faced accusations of political bias and stifling free speech, as well as praise from some Conservative politicians, as more English Premier League players and BBC presenters rallied to Lineker’s support and refused to appear on the airwaves on Saturday.
The broadcaster said it would air only “limited sports programming” this weekend after hosts refused to appear on many of its popular sports shows in collaboration with Lineker. The former England captain was suspended from popular football special show “Match of the Day” over a Twitter post that compared lawmakers’ language about immigrants 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 brilliant presenter. I hope the situation between Gary Lineker and the BBC can be resolved in time, but that is a matter for them, not the Government.
Instead of Saturday’s blanket coverage of the world’s most popular league, the BBC had no radio or television previews and no evening summaries of the final scores of Premier League games. Lunchtime TV show “Football Focus” was replaced by a rerun of the antiques show “Bargain Hunt” and in the evening “Final Score” was swapped for “Repair Shop”.
Football fans tuning in to “Match of the Day”, a late-night program that has been a British institution for 60 years, will get a 20-minute show instead of the usual hour-and-a-half. There is no commentary on the matches and no studio pundits from some of the top stars of British sport who have chosen to support Lineker and not work.
There will also be no player interviews after the match. The Professional Footballers’ Association said some players wanted to boycott the show, which resulted in “players involved in today’s games not being asked to take part in interviews with ‘match of the day'”.
The association said it was a “common sense solution” to avoid players facing sanctions for breaching their broadcasting commitments.
The BBC said it regrets the changes, which will disappoint fans of BBC Sport. We are working hard to resolve the situation and hope to do so soon.”
Lineker, 62, has been a household name in Britain since 1999 before becoming the main “Match of the Day” presenter.
One of the most admired players in English football, he was top scorer at the 1986 World Cup and finished his international career with 48 goals in 80 appearances for England.
After retiring from a career with Barcelona, Tottenham, Everton and Leicester, Lineker has become one of the UK’s most influential media figures and the BBC’s best-paid star, earning £1.35 million ($1.6 million) last year.
An avid social media user with 8.7 million Twitter followers, Lineker has long angered centre-right politicians and activists with his liberal views, including criticism of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.
The latest controversy began with a tweet from Lineker’s account on Tuesday describing the government’s plan to detain and deport boat migrants as “an immeasurably cruel policy aimed at the most vulnerable in language not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”. . .”
The Conservative government called Lineker’s Nazi comparison offensive and unacceptable, and some lawmakers said he should be fired.
In his statement on Saturday, Sunak doubled down on his party’s policy.
“As Prime Minister,” he said, “I have to do what I believe is right, while respecting that everyone will not always agree. So I have been unequivocal in my approach to stopping the boats.”
Sunak said it was the only way to “break this cycle of misery once and for all”.
“There are no easy answers to solve this problem, but I believe that leadership is about making tough decisions to solve problems. I know that not everyone will always agree, but I believe that this is fair and right.
On Friday, the BBC said Lineker was “withdrawing” from Matchday One until an “agreed and clear position on his social media use” was reached. While Lineker has yet to comment publicly, he traveled to his hometown of Leicester on Saturday to watch Leicester City play Chelsea in the Premier League. He was greeted with cheers from the crowd when he arrived for a match 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 prohibited from expressing political views.
Lineker, as a freelancer not working in news or current affairs, is not bound by the same rules, and has sometimes pushed the boundaries of what the BBC considers acceptable. Last year, the BBC found that Lineker had breached impartiality rules with a tweet about alleged Russian donations from the Conservatives.
The BBC’s neutrality has come under recent scrutiny over revelations that its chairman Richard Sharp – a Conservative Party donor – had offered a loan to then-prime minister Boris Johnson in 2021, just weeks before Sharp was appointed to the BBC post on the government’s recommendation.
Former BBC director-general Greg Dyke said the network had “undermined its own credibility” by appearing to bow to government pressure.
Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labor Party, said the BBC was “attentive” to the political influence of Conservative lawmakers.
“They got this wrong and now they’re very exposed,” he said.