The UK’s public service broadcaster, the BBC, faced an escalating crisis on Saturday over its suspension of former football star and programme host Gary Lineker for comments criticising the British government’s new asylum policy.
As a growing number of players and presenters rallied to Lineker’s support, the national broadcaster faced allegations of political bias and suppressing free speech, as well as praise from some Conservative politicians.
The controversy began with a tweet on Tuesday from Lineker’s account – which has 8.7 million followers – describing the government’s 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.”
Presenters of the BBC’s lunchtime ‘Football Focus’ said they would not appear on the programme in solidarity with Lineker.
The programme was pulled from its schedule on Saturday, and replaced it with an episode of antiques show ‘Bargain Hunt’.
After a slew of Lineker’s colleagues announced they wouldn’t appear on the show without him, the BBC said ‘Match of the Day’ would be aired on Saturday without presenters or pundits.
There will not be any post-match player interviews, either. The Professional Footballers’ Association said some players wanted to boycott the show as a gesture of support, and as a result “players involved in today’s games will not be asked to participate in interviews with ‘Match of The Day.’”
‘Match of the Day’, which is broadcast on Saturday nights and shows highlights of Premier League games played that day, has been a national institution since the 1960s. Lineker, its chief presenter since 1999, is the network’s highest-paid star, as well as one of English football’s most lauded players.
Lineker, whose club career included spells with Barcelona, Tottenham, Everton and Leicester, was the leading scorer at the 1986 World Cup and finished his international career with 48 goals in 80 matches for England.
The Conservative government called Lineker’s Nazi comparison offensive and unacceptable, and some lawmakers said he should be fired.
On Friday, the BBC said the 62-year-old Lineker would ‘step back’ from “Match of the Day” until “we’ve got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media.” Lineker has yet to comment publicly.