The BBC was under pressure Saturday to reinstate its highest-paid presenter Gary Lineker, who was suspended for criticizing the country’s new migration policy.
The decision by Britain’s main public broadcaster caused a mutiny among many of Lineker’s colleagues who refused to appear on TV and radio sports programs, forcing the shows to be canceled this weekend.
The BBC has been accused of political bias and suppressing free speech, while supporters of the move say the broadcaster must protect its policy of impartiality.
How did the BBC-Lineker crisis unfold?
Lineker, a former England national team soccer captain, was asked Friday to “step back” from hosting Match of the Day — a show he has hosted for 20 years — after likening the government’s rhetoric over English Channel migrants to Nazi-era Germany.
Lineker was responding to a video in which Home Secretary (Interior Minister) Suella Braverman unveiled plans to stop migrants crossing the English Channel in small boats.
The government proposes to ban migrants from applying for asylum and sending them to “safe” third countries.
“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 presenter wrote on Twitter.
The BBC said the 62-year-old’s comments were a breach of its impartiality guidelines.
The move prompted pundits and former England strikers Ian Wright and Alan Shearer to immediately tweet that they would not take part either, followed by the program’s commentators.
The BBC then said it would air this week’s edition of the Premier League highlights show, on Saturday night, without a presenter and pundits.
The show, which has been on British screens for 60 years, will be cut down to just 20 minutes instead of the usual 60. It opened without any introduction or opening credits and theme music, simply launching into match highlights with stadium noise and no commentary.
The Professional Footballers’ Association said some players also wanted to boycott the show, and, as a result, players would not be asked to conduct post-match interviews.
The crisis escalated Saturday when several other presenters refused to host three other soccer shows on radio and TV, forcing their cancellation and leaving viewers with no previews or final scores of games played in England’s top-flight soccer league.
BBC neutrality questioned
The row has sparked a debate over the BBC’s policy of neutrality and pitched the right-wing UK government against one of the country’s most high-profile sports presenters.
The BBC has a long history of objective news reporting without taking political sides. But the advent of social media has made its rules on impartiality hard to police.
Several journalists have been reprimanded for sharing controversial opinions after director-general Tim Davie warned staff about their use of social media when he took on the role at the end of 2020.
But Lineker is a freelancer, not a permanent member of staff, and is not responsible for news or political content. So many have questioned whether he needs to adhere to the same strict rules on impartiality.
Broadcaster ‘bowed to government pressure’
Meanwhile, the opposition Labour Party and media commentators have accused the broadcaster of silencing the former footballer in response to pressure from the Conservative government.
“The BBC is not acting impartially by caving in to Tory MPs who are complaining about Gary Lineker,” Labour leader Keir Starmer told reporters at a conference in Wales on Saturday.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicolas Sturgeon said the BBC decision was “indefensible.”
“It is undermining free speech in the face of political pressure — and it does always seem to be right-wing pressure it caves to,” she said.
Greg Dyke, who was director general of the BBC between 2000-2004, told BBC radio earlier on Saturday that the move was a mistake.
“The real problem today is that the BBC has undermined its own credibility by doing this,” as it could create the impression that the “BBC has bowed to government pressure.”
By Saturday evening, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak refused to be drawn into the row.
“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.
The 100-year-old BBC is often accused of both left and right-wing bias and some Conservative lawmakers want to scrap the 159-pound ($192, €180) annual license fee on households that funds the lion’s share of its services.
Before and since the 2016 Brexit referendum, both “Leave” and “Remain” supporters have claimed the corporation’s coverage was biased against them.
mm/fb (AFP, AP, Reuters)