The BBC’s sports coverage was hit with a second day of severe disruptions Sunday as dozens of staff refused to work in solidarity with top soccer host Gary Lineker, who was suspended by the broadcaster after he tweeted criticism of the British government’s asylum policy.
The news corporation is reeling from huge fallout and questions over its impartiality after it suspended Lineker, one of English soccer’s most lauded players and the corporation’s highest-paid presenter, on Friday after he compared the Conservative government’s language about migrants to that used in Nazi Germany.
He was referring to the government’s plans to stop migrants from arriving in small boats on U.K. shores by introducing tough new laws that would detain asylum seekers, deport them and ban them from ever re-entering the U.K.
Immigration and “taking back control” of Britain’s borders has been a hot-button issue in the U.K. since voters backed Britain’s exit from the European Union. Like his predecessors in recent years, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has made stopping the English Channel migrant crossings one of his top priorities. But his latest plans have drawn swift condemnation from the U.N.’s refugee agency and many rights groups, which call the policies unethical and unworkable.
Pressure is mounting on the BBC to resolve the crisis, with growing calls for its bosses to step down over allegations of political bias and suppressing free speech.
The controversy has impacted the BBC’s sports programs, with dozens of sports presenters and reporters walking out of their jobs Saturday and Sunday in support of Lineker.
A look at who Lineker is, the debate surrounding his comments and how it’s affected the BBC:
Who is Lineker and what did he say?
Lineker, 62, is one of Britain’s most influential media figures and was paid $1.6 million by the BBC last year.
One of England’s greatest strikers with 48 goals in 80 international appearances, he was a household name in Britain even before he became chief presenter of the soccer highlights show “Match of the Day” in 1999.
In a post Tuesday to his 8.7 million followers on Twitter, Lineker described the government’s new plan to detain and deport migrants arriving by boat as “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the ’30s.”
How did the BBC and others react?
The BBC — which has prominently covered the Lineker controversy — said the presenter breached its social media guidelines and said he was to step back from presenting “Match of the Day.”
While BBC news staff are barred from expressing political opinions, Linker is a freelancer who doesn’t work in news or current affairs. However, in guidelines updated in 2020, the BBC said presenters with a “significant public profile” had responsibility to avoid taking sides on party political issues or political controversies.
The government called Lineker’s Nazi comparison offensive and unacceptable, and some lawmakers said he should be fired.
In a BBC interview, the broadcaster’s director-general Tim Davie flatly rejected a suggestion that Lineker was suspended due to pressure from the governing Conservative Party.
Many who supported Lineker said he had a right to express his opinion online.
“I cannot see why you would ask someone to step back for saying that,” said Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who is known for being outspoken about current affairs. “If I understand it right, it is a message, an opinion about human rights and that should be possible to say.”
Others say the corporation’s impartiality rules seem muddled, pointing out that Lineker did not face discipline when he criticized the Qatar government’s rights record during the World Cup last year.
“It seems that they want to pick and choose when they want to be partial, criticizing others or criticizing other countries or other political parties or other religions seems to be okay,” former England soccer player John Barnes told Sky News.
How has the BBC been affected?
The 100-year-old BBC is under scrutiny particularly because it is a public corporation — it is mostly funded by a license fee paid by all households with a television — and is expected to be independent.
The broadcaster’s neutrality came under recent scrutiny over revelations that its chairman, Richard Sharp — a Conservative Party donor — helped arrange a loan for then Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2021, weeks before he was appointed to the BBC post on the government’s recommendation.
More immediately, the decision to suspend Lineker has triggered a mass walkout of BBC sports presenters and reporters in solidarity with their colleague.
On Saturday, several daytime soccer shows were pulled at the last minute and “Match of the Day,” regarded as something of a British institution since the 1960s, aired with no commentary and only featured shortened footage. Usually lasting around an hour and a half, Saturday’s “Match of the Day” only aired for 20 minutes.
Sunday’s coverage of the Women’s Super League aired without commentary from regular BBC presenters and “Match of the Day 2” was also expected to run in a reduced format.
Davie apologized for the disruption and said bosses are “working very hard to resolve the situation and make sure that we get output back on air.”