The BBC’s sport service was plunged into chaos on Saturday as commentators refused to work in support of presenter Gary Lineker, who was suspended after he criticised the governmnet’s new migration policy.
The 62-year-old compared the language used to launch the new policy to that of Nazi-era Germany on Twitter, which the BBC said on Friday was a “breach of our guidelines”.
The broadcaster said that Lineker will “step back” from presenting Match of the Day – a Saturday night fixture since 1964 and the longest-running football television programme in the world – until it agrees on a clear position on his use of social media.
The decision triggered a wave of condemnation from hosts and co-hosts who boycotted their duties for Saturday’s round of football fixtures, forcing the broadcasting service in television and radio output to decimate its scheduled programming.
Pundits and former England strikers Ian Wright and Alan Shearer tweeted that they would not take up their usual roles on Match of the Day, followed by the programme’s commentators.
Everybody 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 won’t be appearing on MOTD tomorrow night.
— Alan Shearer (@alanshearer) March 10, 2023
Wright then said on his podcast on Saturday that he would quit the BBC if Lineker were sacked for good.
The BBC’s move sparked a debate over free speech, as well a wave of criticism from politicians and public figures, many of whom accused it of buckling to demands from Conservative lawmakers.
“It’s absolutely insane that Britain has become a country where having an opinion can cost you your job. If we don’t cherish & fiercely protect free speech, even for views we personally despise, we’re no better than totalitarian regimes like China & North Korea,” said TV host Piers Morgan.
It’s absolutely insane that Britain has become a country where having an opinion can cost you your job. If we don’t cherish & fiercely protect free speech, even for views we personally despise, we’re no better than totalitarian regimes like China & North Korea.
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) March 11, 2023
Keir Starmer, Labour Party leader, accused the BBC of “caving in” to the demands of Conservative Party members.
“The BBC is not acting impartially by caving in to Tory MPs who are complaining about Gary Lineker,” said Starmer.
Regardless of the mounting crisis, BBC’s director general, Tim Davie, said he would not resign.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that the dispute was a matter for the broadcaster, not the government.
“I hope that 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.
‘A massive own goal’
The BBC announced that the highlights show would air without pundits or a presenter for the first time.
It also said players would not be asked for interviews after some indicated they would not be available in support of Lineker.
Weekend preview show Football Focus and results programme Final Score were also pulled from the schedule due to presenters and pundits pulling out.
Saturday sports schedules for BBC Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were also amended.
“We are sorry for these changes which we recognise will be disappointing for BBC sport fans,” said the broadcaster. “We are working hard to resolve the situation and hope to do so soon.”
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) described the action taken against Lineker as a “massive own goal on the part of the BBC”.
The NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet added, “Yielding 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 news or political content so does not need to adhere to the same strict rules on impartiality as staff working in news.
The spat was set off by Lineker’s response to a video in which home secretary Suella Braverman unveiled plans to stop asylum seekers crossing the Channel on small boats.
Lineker, the BBC’s highest-paid star, wrote 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.”
The Conservative government intends to outlaw asylum claims by all irregular arrivals and transfer them to other countries, such as Rwanda, in a bid to stop the crossings, which totalled more than 45,000 last year.
Some 36 Tory lawmakers have sent a letter to the BBC warning that the affair will “no doubt shake many people’s already fragile confidence” in the corporation’s impartiality.