BBC's Suspension of Gary Lineker Takes Over Britain, Forces an Unprecedented Saturday in Football

High profile football hosts refused to appear on television and radio shows in solidarity with Lineker, who faced punitive action after tweeting against Britain's proposed immigration policy. British newspapers all devoted their Sunday frontpages to the matter.

New Delhi: The British Broadcasting Corporation has come under significant pressure since its high profile presenter, the former England football captain Gary Lineker, was suspended for criticising Britain’s proposed legislation for immigrants.

Lineker’s removal has not only led to questions on the public broadcaster buckling under government pressure but has also seen an unprecedented weekend in the football season, with a host of Lineker’s famous colleagues refusing to appear on television and radio shows in solidarity with him.

On March 10, Lineker was asked to “step back” from hosting BBC’s flagship football weekend show, 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.

The BBC said the 62-year-old’s comments were a breach of its impartiality guidelines.

Former England strikers Ian Wright and Alan Shearer immediately tweeted that they would not take part in the show either. BBC then aired the week’s edition of the Premier League highlights show last night without a presenter and pundits. Without commentary, the 60-minute show was cut down to 20.

The Mirror prosaically noted, “BBC have scheduled Sully, a film about a plane crashing into a river, to fill the gap.”

The Professional Footballers’ Association also threw its weight behind Lineker, saying that as some players also wanted to boycott the show, they would not be asked to appear in post-match interviews.

Hosts of three other football shows on radio and TV refused to participate as well, forcing the cancellation of the shows. Games of the Premier League aired without broadcasts on pre-match talks or final scores.

Media response 

Opposition Labour Party has accused BBC of silencing Lineker 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.

Talks have been rife on whether it is correct for the BBC can seek to impose impartiality on a freelancer like Lineker, including on his personal social media.

Journalists on the payroll have earlier 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.

British newspapers from across the spectrum have devoted frontpages to the Lineker affair. Lineker himself retweeted a comment by The Independent’s Tom Peck, observing how the news was “on the front of the Mail and The Telegraph this morning because they are anti-BBC campaigning newspapers and they use Gary Lineker as a front in their stupid war.”

As the story grew, attention was drawn to serious questions about how the BBC’s Chairman Richard Sharp could survive this, given the controversy over his own position.

The BBC itself reported that “fresh questions are being asked about Mr Sharp’s position in light of another impartiality row involving Match of the Day host Lineker.

An ongoing review into Sharp’s appointment as BBC chairman is investigating “whether he failed to properly disclose details of his involvement in the facilitation of an £800,000 loan guarantee for the then PM Boris Johnson. He has denied any involvement in the arrangement of a loan for Johnson.” The BBC is also conducting its own internal review over any potential conflicts of interest Mr Sharp may have as BBC chairman.

An MPs’ committee had earlier concluded that Sharp made “significant errors of judgement” in doing so while applying for the BBC job. 

Things became so hot, after Lineker not doing the Match of the Day, that the British PM Rishi Sunak, anxious to firewall himself and the Tory government, was forced to issue a statement last night, saying BBC row with Gary Lineker can be resolved but “not a matter for government”. The British PM said he hopes the matter is resolved in a “timely manner”.

The Telegraph reported that the Illegal Migrants Bill, at the heart of the debate, may also be watered down. Rishi Sunak’s small boats Bill could be watered down by peers and centrist Conservative MPs concerned over its modern slavery provisions, The Telegraph said it has been told. The conservative newspaper writes that “Prime Minister is also facing possible rebellion from backbenchers with more liberal views on immigration” if he fails to set out details on providing additional “safe and legal routes”.

With inputs from DW.