The BBC’s sports service was plunged into chaos on Saturday as commentators refused to work in support of presenter Gary Lineker, who was suspended after he criticized the governmnet’s new transfer policy.
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 rules”.
The broadcaster said Lineker would “back off” from presenting Match of the Day – a Saturday night fixture since 1964 and the world’s longest-running football television program – until it agreed a clear position in his use of social media.
The decision triggered a wave of condemnation from hosts and co-hosts who boycotted their duties for Saturday’s round of football fixtures, forcing the broadcasting service’s television and radio output to destroy the already- its programming schedule.
Pundits and former England strikers Ian Wright and Alan Shearer tweeted that they would not be doing their usual duties on Match of the Day, followed by the programme’s commentators.
Everyone knows what Match of the Day means to me, but I told the BBC I’m not doing it tomorrow. unity
— Ian Wright (@IanWright0) March 10, 2023
I have informed the BBC that I will not be appearing on MOTD tomorrow night.
— Alan Shearer (@alanshearer) March 10, 2023
Wright said on his podcast on Saturday that he would leave the BBC if Lineker was sacked permanently.
The BBC’s move sparked a debate over free speech, as well as a wave of criticism from politicians and public figures, many of whom accused it of buckling to demands from Conservative lawmakers.
“It’s crazy that Britain has become a country where having an opinion can cost you your job. If we don’t value and fiercely protect free speech, even for views we personally despise, we’re no better off than totalitarian regimes like China and North Korea,” said TV host Piers Morgan.
It’s really crazy that Britain has become a country where having an opinion can cost you a job. If we don’t value and fiercely protect free speech, even for views we personally despise, we’re no better than totalitarian regimes like China and North Korea.
— Piers Morgan (@piersmorgan) March 11, 2023
Keir Starmer, leader of the Labor Party, accused the BBC of “caving in” to the demands of Conservative Party members.
“The BBC is not acting impartially by giving in to Tory MPs complaining about Gary Lineker,” Starmer said.
Regardless of the mounting crisis, the BBC’s director general, Tim Davie, has said he will not resign.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the dispute was a matter for the broadcaster, not the government.
“I hope that the current situation between Gary Lineker and the BBC can be resolved in a timely manner, but this is right for them, not the government,” he said in a statement.
‘A massive own goal’
The BBC has announced that highlights shows will be broadcast without pundits or presenters for the first time.
It also said the players would not be asked for interviews after some indicated they would not be available to support Lineker.
Weekend preview show Football Focus and results program Final Score were also pulled from the schedule due to presenters and pundits pulling out.
The Saturday sports schedules for BBC Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have also been changed.
“We regret these changes which we recognize will be disappointing for fans of BBC sport,” the broadcaster said. “We are working hard to resolve the situation and hope to do so soon.”
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) described the action taken against Lineker as an “extremely self-serving act on the part of the BBC”.
NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet added, “Caving in to ongoing political pressure in this way is as foolish as it is dangerous.”
Lineker is a freelance broadcaster for the BBC, not a permanent member of staff, and has no responsibility for news or political content so does not have to adhere to the same strict impartiality rules as staff working in news.
The row was sparked by Lineker’s response to a video in which home secretary Suella Braverman announced plans to stop asylum seekers crossing the Channel in small boats.
Lineker, the BBC’s highest paid star, wrote on Twitter, “This is a very cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in a language not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the ’30s.”
The Conservative government aims to ban the asylum claims of all irregular arrivals and transfer them to other countries, such as Rwanda, in a bid to stop the crossings, which reached more than 45,000 last year .
Some 36 Tory lawmakers sent a letter to the BBC warning that the affair “will undoubtedly shake many people’s fragile confidence” in corporate impartiality.