© Reuters. Soccer Football – Premier League – Leicester City v Chelsea – King Power Stadium, Leicester, Britain – March 11, 2023 Former player and BBC presenter Gary Lineker is pictured arriving at the stadium before the match REUTERS/Toby Melville
By Sarah Young
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said a row between the BBC and football presenter Gary Lineker over Lineker’s criticism of government migration policy was a matter for the broadcaster, as the dispute threatened to trigger a crisis at the corporation.
The BBC was forced to axe much of its sports coverage on Saturday as presenters refused to work in solidarity with Lineker, after the BBC sought to defend its impartiality by taking Lineker off air due to his comments on social media.
Lineker, a former England soccer captain, the BBC’s highest-paid presenter and the anchor of the football highlights programme “Match of the Day”, was suspended from his role following his criticism of Britain’s migration policy earlier in the week.
Sunak issued a statement on Saturday defending the policy, which bars the entry of asylum seekers arriving in small boats across the English Channel and saying he hoped Lineker and the BBC could resolve their differences in a timely manner.
“It is rightly a matter for them, not the government,” Sunak said, adding it was important to maintain perspective given the seriousness of the migration issue which saw 45,000 people risk their lives crossing the Channel illegally last year.
The Lineker row severely disrupted the BBC’s sports programming on Saturday as multiple presenters walked out, prompting it to issue an apology.
“We are working hard to resolve the situation and hope to do so soon,” the BBC said in a statement.
Saturday’s edition of “Match of the Day”, a show presented by Lineker for more than 20 years, was scheduled to air at the usual time despite his absence, but will likely be a silent show of highlights given that commentators have refused to work on it.
NEUTRALITY UNDER SCRUTINY
The BBC is committed to being politically impartial, but has faced criticism from the Conservative and Labour parties about how neutral it actually is, particularly in the era of social media, used by high-profile presenters to make their personal positions known.
BBC Director General Tim Davie revealed a 10-point impartiality plan in 2021 after a number of disputes, but none have snowballed like the current one. He said on Saturday he wouldn’t resign over the Lineker affair.
The opposition Labour Party and media commentators accuse the BBC of silencing Lineker, bowing to pressure from the Conservative government after Sunak’s spokeswoman called Lineker’s comments “unacceptable” and interior minister Suella Braverman said they were “offensive”.
“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.
Lineker declined to comment to media as he left his London home on Saturday and did not reply to questions from reporters on arrival at the King Power Stadium in Leicester where he went to watch one of his former clubs play.
The furore comes after Sunak announced the new law earlier in the week. Lineker, 62, took to Twitter to describe the legislation as a “cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”
Seeking to resolve the dispute, the BBC said there needed to be an agreed position on Lineker’s use of social media before he can return to presenting.
But critics of Lineker’s suspension say he is entitled to his personal opinions because he is not a news presenter.
Greg Dyke, who was director-general of the BBC between 2000 and 2004, told BBC radio earlier on Saturday that the BBC had made a mistake by taking Lineker off air because it gives the impression the government can tell the broadcaster what to do.
“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,” Dyke said.
That could turn viewers away from the 100-year-old BBC, which is funded by a 159 pound ($192) annual “licence fee” tax on all television-watching households.
While the broadcaster remains a central presence in British cultural life, it is battling to stay relevant with younger audiences and faces threats to its funding as some Conservative lawmakers want to scrap the licence fee.
Questions about BBC chairman Richard Sharp (OTC:) pose a further challenge for the broadcaster.
Sharp is under pressure for failing to declare his involvement in facilitating a loan for former Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson shortly before he was appointed to the role. Sharp’s appointment, made on the recommendation of the government, is now being reviewed by Britain’s public appointments watchdog.
(This story has been refiled to correct spelling of Lineker in paragraph 2)