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 BBC was forced to axe much of its sports coverage on Saturday after presenters refused to work in a show of solidarity with Gary Lineker, as a row over freedom of speech threatens to turn into a crisis for the national broadcaster.
Former England soccer captain Lineker, the BBC’s highest paid presenter and the anchor of the football highlights programme “Match of the Day”, was taken off air by the broadcaster on Friday after he criticised Britain’s migration policy earlier in the week.
Many sports programmes did not air as scheduled on Saturday after multiple presenters walked out, prompting the BBC to apologise to viewers.
“We are working hard to resolve the situation and hope to do so soon,” the broadcaster said in a statement.
The Lineker row has sparked a debate over the BBC’s neutrality, and pitched the government against one of the country’s most high-profile and popular sports presenters.
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 his former club play.
The BBC is committed to being politically impartial, but it is now facing criticism from the opposition Labour Party and media commentators who accuse it of silencing Lineker in response to pressure from the Conservative government.
“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.
‘GERMANY IN THE 30s’
The furore comes after British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a new law earlier in the week which bars the entry of asylum seekers arriving in small boats across the Channel.
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.”
Sunak’s spokeswoman called the comments “not acceptable” while interior Minister Suella Braverman said Lineker’s reaction to the policy was “offensive”.
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 presenting a news programme.
Greg Dyke, who was director-general of the BBC between 2000-2004, 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,” he said.
That could turn viewers away from the 100-year-old BBC, which is funded by what is in effect 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 in future as some Conservative lawmakers want to scrap the licence fee.
Saturday’s edition of “Match of the Day”, a show presented by Lineker for over 20 years, was scheduled to air at the usual time despite his absence. The BBC has said it will “focus on match action without studio presentation or punditry”.