BBC faces celebrity revolt, political pressure amid soccer host dispute

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The BBC faces a spiraling revolt by its top sporting presenters amid a row over the broadcaster’s impartiality standards, after star football host Gary Lineker was chastised for tweets criticizing the U.K. government’s new asylum policies.

Calls of hypocrisy were also leveled at the U.K. broadcaster on Saturday, as Labour leader Keir Starmer accused the BBC of “caving in” to the demands of Conservative Party members.

The broadcaster’s sporting coverage was plunged into uncertainty due to a boycott from a group of hosts and co-hosts who disagreed with the BBC for attempting to penalize “Match of the Day” presenter Lineker for his recent comments against what he called the government’s “immeasurably cruel policy” on immigration. He has been told to “step back” from his BBC presenting duties.

In a March 7 tweet, the ex-England international footballer compared the U.K. government’s new policy on illegal migrants with the language of Nazi Germany, prompting a backlash from Conservative MPs and members of the government. The BBC says the tweet violated its impartiality standards.

The U.K.’s new asylum policy would block undocumented migrants from entering the country on small vessels. The bill has been condemned by the United Nations, which said it amounts to an “asylum ban.”  

“Match of the Day” — a flagship BBC football show for Premier League fans — found itself without regulars Ian Wright, Alan Shearer, Jermaine Jenas, Micah Richards and Jermain Defoe, who all pledged to stand by Lineker in the dispute. The BBC said “Match of the Day” would be aired Saturday without presenters or pundits.

Popular broadcasts “Football Focus” and “Final Score” have also been deleted from the BBC’s schedule this weekend, after Alex Scott, Kelly Somers and Jason Mohammad all backed Lineker’s corner. BBC Radio 5 Live’s football build-up transmission was ditched minutes before airing, as other leading hosts and pundits joined forces against the broadcaster’s disciplining of Lineker.

BBC Director General Tim Davie apologised for the disruptions and said “we are working very hard to resolve the situation.” In an interview with BBC News late Saturday, Davie said “success for me is getting Gary back on air.” Davie said he would “absolutely not” be resigning over the row.

The BBC boss said he was prepared to review impartiality rules for freelance staff like Lineker.

In an earlier statement, the BBC said it considers Lineker’s “recent social media activity to be a breach of our guidelines.”

“The BBC has decided that he will step back from presenting Match of the Day until we’ve got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media,” according to the statement.

A five-year contract that Lineker signed in 2020 includes guarantees to adhere to the BBC’s impartiality code. He is on a reported £1.35 million-a-year salary.

Labour’s Starmer accused the BBC of pandering to the demands of the Conservative Party on Saturday.

“The BBC is not acting impartially by caving in to Tory MPs who are complaining about Gary Lineker,” Starmer told broadcasters at Welsh Labour’s conference in Llandudno, Wales. “They got this one badly wrong and now they’re very, very exposed.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer accused the broadcaster of caving in to Tory demands | Jason Roberts/Getty Images

Conservative MP Nadine Dorries tweeted on Friday that Lineker needs to decide whether he is “a footie presenter or a member of the Labour Party.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak defended the government’s asylum policy in a statement on Saturday and said the impartiality dispute is for the broadcaster and the presenter to sort out.

“I hope that the current situation between Gary Lineker and the BBC can be resolved in a timely manner, but it is rightly a matter for them, not the government,” Sunak said in the statement.

Liverpool football club manager Jürgen Klopp backed Lineker when asked about the controversy on Saturday.

“I cannot see why you would ask someone to step back for saying that,” Klopp said. “Everybody wants to be so concerned about doing things in the right manner, saying the right stuff. If you don’t do that then you create a shitstorm, it is a really difficult world to live in,” he said.

“If I understand it right, it is a message, an opinion about human rights and that should be possible to say,” Klopp said.

The links between the BBC and the U.K.’s governing Conservative Party run deep. The corporation’s chairman, Richard Sharp, was previously outed as having facilitated an £800,000 loan for Boris Johnson, the former U.K. prime minister. On Saturday, Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey called for Sharp to resign.

The communications officer for former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May — Robbie Gibb — has sat on the BBC board as a non-executive director since 2021. Current BBC Director General Tim Davie previously stood as a councilor for the Conservative Party in Hammersmith, a London constituency.

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