LONDON: BBC television’s flagship football programme was in meltdown on Saturday after pundits and commentators refused to work in a show of support for presenter Gary Lineker, who was forced to “step back” after accusing the government of using Nazi-era rhetoric.
Match of the Day presenter Lineker, England’s fourth most prolific goal scorer, sparked an impartiality row by criticising the British government’s new policy on tackling illegal immigration.
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 BBC has decided that he will step back from presenting Match of the Day until we’ve got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media,” the broadcaster said in a statement.
Pundits and former England strikers Ian Wright and Alan Shearer immediately tweeted that they would not take part either, 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,” Wright tweeted. “Solidarity.”
The BBC announced that the highlights show, a Saturday night fixture since 1964 and the longest-running football television programme in the world, 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.
The BBC said Match of the Day would air without a presenter or pundits.
“Some of our pundits have said that they don’t wish to appear on the programme while we seek to resolve the situation with Gary,” said a spokesperson.
“We understand their position and we have decided that the programme will focus on match action without studio presentation or punditry.”
Adding to the chaos, presenters and pundits also pulled out of the daytime Football Focus and Final Score programmes.
The row was sparked by Lineker’s response to a video in which Home Secretary Suella Braverman unveiled plans to stop migrants crossing the Channel on small boats.
Lineker, the BBC’s highest-paid star at £2 million a year, 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 illegal arrivals and transfer them elsewhere, such as Rwanda, in a bid to stop the crossings, which totalled more than 45,000 last year.
Stopping the boats is the “people’s priority”, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons earlier this week.
A YouGov poll published on Monday showed 50% backing the measures, with 36% opposed.
But rights groups and the United Nations said the legislation would make Britain an international outlaw under European and UN conventions on asylum.
The BBC’s move sparked a wave of criticism from politicians and public figures, many of whom accused it of buckling to demands from Conservative politicians.
Sports correspondent Natalie Pirks posted a picture of a George Orwell statue outside the BBC building in a free-speech reference, while former BBC director-general Greg Dyke said the broadcaster had made a mistake.
“The real problem today is that the BBC has undermined its own credibility by doing this,” he told the broadcaster, adding it could create the impression that the “BBC has bowed to government pressure”.
Dyke himself was accused of being a political appointee, having donated to the Labour party before being made BBC boss in 2000.
Social media warning
The issue has brought to a head years of debate over BBC impartiality, which intensified after Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016.
Brexit supporters claimed that the corporation coverage was biased against them, while the left claim that it allowed presenters to make disparaging remarks against former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn without punishment.
The Lineker row comes at a particularly heated period after it emerged that BBC chairman Richard Sharp allegedly facilitated a loan guarantee for former prime minister Boris Johnson while in the process of applying for the job.
Friday’s BBC statement described Lineker as “second to none” in his sports presenting.
“We have never said that Gary should be an opinion-free zone, or that he can’t have a view on issues that matter to him, but we have said that he should keep well away from taking sides on party political issues or political controversies,” it added.
BBC director-general Tim Davie warned staff about their use of social media when he took on the role at the end of 2020.
Lineker is a freelance broadcaster, not a permanent member of BBC staff, and is not responsible for news or political content so does not need to adhere to the same strict rules on impartiality.
The former Barcelona and Tottenham player has hosted refugees at his home and has previously been vocal in his criticism of the government’s handling of migrant crossings.
He previously told reporters outside his London home that he stood by his criticism of the immigration policy and did not fear suspension by the BBC.