Britain’s BBC was forced to axe much of its football coverage on Saturday as presenters refused to work in a show of solidarity with Gary Lineker, as a row over freedom of speech escalates, throwing the national broadcaster’s programming into disarray.
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.
The row has sparked a debate over freedom of speech and the BBC’s neutrality and risks pulling the government into a dispute with one of the country’s highest profile and most popular sports presenters.
The BBC said Saturday’s edition of “Match of the Day” would “focus on match action without studio presentation or punditry.”
Two other BBC programmes, “Football Focus” and “Final Score”, will not air on Saturday after presenters including Alex Scott, Jason Mohammad and others said they would not work, while BBC sports radio was hit by walkouts from Mark Chapman and others.
The BBC did not immediately respond when contacted for comment. Recorded content replaced usual programming on affected radio stations and television channels.
Lineker, 62, had earlier in the week taken to Twitter to describe new government legislation on migrants as a “cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”
Before he can return to presenting, the BBC has said there had to be an agreed position on Lineker’s use of social media, prompting accusations from rival politicians and media commentators who said the BBC was bowing to political pressure.
The 100-year-old BBC, funded by what is in effect a 159 pounds ($192) annual “license fee” tax on all television-watching households, has a central presence in British cultural life.
The broadcaster is committed to being politically impartial but has come under pressure from the Conservative government in recent years who accuse it of political bias.
LINEKER SILENT FOR NOW
Lineker, who has hosted the BBC’s flagship football show for over 20 years, did not say anything about the dispute to waiting media when he left his home on Saturday.
Speaking to BBC radio, Greg Dyke, a former director general of the BBC, said he thought the BBC had made a mistake by suspending Lineker and he did not expect the footballer to be silenced.
“I suspect this is the end of Gary Lineker as a BBC presenter,” he said.
Britain had announced details of the new migration laws on Tuesday under which people arriving in small boats across the Channel are prevented from claiming asylum and deported either back to their homeland or to so-called safe third countries.
Interior Minister Suella Braverman had publicly criticised Lineker’s reaction to the policy as “offensive”.
Last year Braverman had faced a backlash for her own use of language when she called the arrival in southern England of thousands of asylum seekers on small boats an “invasion”.