London: As football pundits threw their weight behind football presenter and former England captain Gary Lineker, and as calls for resignations of the BBC chair and director general grew, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak on Saturday (March 11) said that the football presenter’s dispute with the corporation over his criticism of the government’s immigration policy is an issue for the station.
In a sign that the Conservative government feared being linked to the reason for Lineker’s suspension, the prime minister described him as “a great footballer and a talented presenter,” and hoped that Lineker and the BBC could resolve their differences in a “timely manner.”
In a statement issued on Saturday, he said that the BBC’s decision to take Gary Lineker off the air is “a matter for them, not the Government,” as “not everyone will always agree” with his asylum policy.
As soon as his suspension was made public, Lineker’s fellow hosts and commentators, notably ‘Match of the Day’ regulars Ian Wright, Alan Shearer, and Jermaine Jenas, expressed their support. ‘Football Focus’ host Alex Scott resigned from her position, and a significant portion of BBC Radio 5 Live’s sports reporting was replaced by pre-recorded material.
On Saturday, the issue reached a new low when the BBC was obliged to drastically cut back on its TV and radio coverage of sports and show its Match of the Day programme, which is usually hosted by Lineker, without presenters, experts, or the customary post-match interviews with players, many of whom came out in support of the presenter. Only 20 minutes of the over-80-minute programme was aired on Saturday night.
Match of the Day will run for 20 minutes tonight. pic.twitter.com/YIuoCFVbvP
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) March 11, 2023
“We are working hard to resolve the situation and hope to do so soon,” the BBC said in a statement. “We are sorry for these changes which we recognise will be disappointing for BBC sport fans.”
The row between the broadcaster and its highest-paid presenter was sparked after Lineker criticised the government’s plans to stop migrants crossing the Channel on small boats.
Linekar, 62, took to Twitter to describe the legislation as a “cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in a language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”
Earlier in the week, the former England soccer captain, and BBC’s highest-paid presenter, was forced to “step back” from his duties presenting the flagship Premier League highlights show.
The Home secretary Suella Braverman has denied the use of ‘Nazi-like’ rhetoric.
Pressure on BBC brass
By Saturday night, the row over freedom of speech and neutrality threatened to bring down the organisation’s most senior executives and even derail some parts of the government’s controversial new asylum policy.
Leading sports and media leaders endorsed Lineker’s right to criticise what he views as a racist language used by ministers to promote their immigration policies, which led to increasing pressure on the BBC’s chairman, Richard Sharp, and director general, Tim Davie, to resign on Saturday night. However, on Saturday evening, Davie maintained that he would not resign.
Many compared the Lineker row to the scandal surrounding Richard Sharp, the chairman of the BBC, who is being investigated for his part in arranging an £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson while he was prime minister and at the same time Sharp was vying for the position of BBC head.
The former director-general of the BBC between 2000 and 2004, Greg Dyke, said that the corporation has “undermined its own credibility” with the decision, adding that it suggested the BBC had “bowed to government pressure.”
“The perception out there is going to be that Gary Lineker, a much-loved television presenter, was taken off air after government pressure on a particular issue,” he added.
The shockwaves have rippled through the sports, media and political spheres. Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool’s German manager, waded in to defend Lineker’s right to speak out on what he said were human rights issues: “That is a really difficult world to live in, but if I understand it properly this is an opinion on human rights and that should be possible to voice.”
British media has reported that Lineker was given no other choice after declining a proposal to resolve the situation with an apology. Earlier in the week he had been told there would be no action taken against him, prompting some to think that pressure from the government swayed BBC’s minds against him.
The BBC’s decision spurred a discussion on free speech as well as a barrage of criticism from politicians and public figures, many of whom said the organisation had succumbed to pressure from Conservative lawmakers.
The BBC, according to Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, “caving in” to Conservative MPs, saying such actions were “the opposite of impartial.”
“They got this one badly wrong and now they are very, very exposed,” Starmer remarked. “Because at the heart of this is the government’s failure in the asylum system. And rather than take responsibility for the mess they’ve made, the government is casting around to blame anybody else – Gary Lineker, the BBC, civil servants, the ‘blob’.”
The outgoing first prime minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, said that as a “strong supporter of public service broadcasting” she wanted to defend the BBC, but the decision was indefensible.
“It is undermining free speech in the face of political pressure – and it does always seem to be rightwing pressure it caves to,” she said.
Remarkably, TV host Piers Morgan said in a tweet: “It’s absolutely insane that Britain has become a country where having an opinion can cost you your job. If we don’t cherish and fiercely protect free speech, even for views we personally despise, we’re no better than totalitarian regimes like China & North Korea.”
Meanwhile, the BBC has said that Lineker will stay off air until they reach an “agreed and clear position” on his use of social media.
In a parallel world, the BBC has chosen not to air one episode of Sir David Attenborough’s acclaimed new series on British wildlife out of concern that its themes of environmental damage will provoke a backlash from right-wing media and Tory MPs.
Kalrav Joshi is an independent journalist based out of London. He reports and writes on politics, culture, technology and climate.