The BBC’s weekend soccer coverage has been plunged into chaos following its announcement Gary Lineker would “step back” from presenting, after he became embroiled in an impartiality row when he criticized British government policy on Twitter.
The broadcaster now faces a boycott from pundits, presenters and even players of its flagship soccer show “Match of the Day,” while other soccer programs – Football Focus and Final Score – and some radio programming have been forced off-air as a result of the furore.
Lineker criticized the government’s controversial new asylum-seeker policy on Tuesday and was subsequently relieved of his presenting duties this week since the BBC said his tweets breached their guidelines, specifically its commitment to “due impartiality.”
The BBC’s decision has sparked controversy, leaving the organization under fire from opposition politicians, the Broadcasting Entertainment Communications and Theatre Union who represent BBC staff, and its former director general Greg Dyke.
“The BBC will only be able to bring limited sport programming this weekend and our schedules will be updated to reflect that,” a BBC spokesperson said in a statement Saturday.
“We are sorry for these changes which we recognize will be disappointing for BBC sport fans.
“We are working hard to resolve the situation and hope to do so soon.”
In addition to Saturday’s disruption, the BBC reported that Sunday’s coverage, including “Match of the Day 2” and the Women’s Super League, would also be reduced.
In an interview with BBC News on Saturday, the broadcaster’s Director General Tim Davie was asked if he should resign over the crisis. He said he would not.
“I honestly do not believe, despite a lot of the commentary, that this is about left or right,” Davie said. The BBC is a “fierce champion of democratic debate, free speech, but with that comes the need to create an impartial organization,” he added.
When asked if he was sorry about the way he handled the situation, he said: “We made decisions, and I made decisions based on a real passion about what the BBC is and it is difficult – it’s this balance between free speech and impartiality.”
On Tuesday, Lineker tweeted “Good heavens, this is beyond awful” to a video posted on Twitter by the British Home Office announcing the new proposed policy – an attempt to stop migrant boats crossing the English Channel from France which has been criticized by the United Nations and other global bodies.
He added: “There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s, and I’m out of order?”
As Britain’s public broadcaster, the BBC is bound by “due impartiality” – a much debated term which the organization defines as holding “power to account with consistency” while not “allowing ourselves to be used to campaign to change public policy.”
On Friday, the BBC announced Lineker would “step back from presenting Match of the Day until we’ve got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media,” adding it considered his recent social media activity to breach its guidelines.
In response, first pundits, then commentators, and then even Premier League teams announced their intention to boycott the show in support of Lineker.
BBC commentators Steve Wilson, Conor McNamara, Robyn Cowen and Steven Wyeth said in a joint statement issued late on Friday “in the circumstances, we do not feel it would be appropriate to take part in the programme.”
A shortened version of the program eventually aired on Saturday, opening with a BBC continuity announcer issuing an apology, instead of the usual title sequence and theme tune.
It then showed highlights from Saturday’s English Premier League games with no commentary, only the background audio from the stadiums.
The show aired for 20 minutes, an hour less than the originally scheduled time.
Jermain Defoe, a former England striker, announced Saturday he would not appear as a pundit on the Sunday show.
“It’s always such a privilege to work with BBC MOTD. But tomorrow I have taken the decision to stand down from my punditry duties. @GaryLineker,” Defoe tweeted.
Defoe’s announcement appears to be the first sign the British broadcaster’s Sunday television programming will also be affected.
Meanwhile, the Professional Footballers’ Association announced on Saturday “players involved in today’s games will not be asked to participate in interviews with Match of the Day.”
“The PFA have been speaking to members who wanted to take a collective position and to be able to show their support for those who have chosen not to be part of tonight’s programme,” the statement added.
“During those conversations we made clear that, as their union, we would support all members who might face consequences for choosing not to complete their broadcast commitments. This is a common sense decision that ensures players won’t now be put in that position.”
Following his side’s 1-0 defeat against Bournemouth on Saturday, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was asked about the BBC issue.
“I cannot see any reason why they would ask anyone to step back for saying that. I’m not sure if that’s a language issue or not,” the German told reporters.
“If I understand it right, then this is about an opinion about human rights and that should be possible to say.
“What I don’t understand is why everybody goes on Twitter and says something. I don’t understand the social media part of it but that’s probably [because] I’m too old for that.”
A political row
The BBC’s former director general Greg Dyke said the broadcaster has “undermined its own credibility” by suspending Lineker because it seemed like it had “bowed to government pressure.”
Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said the BBC had got “this one badly wrong and now they’re very, very exposed.”
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “As a strong supporter of public service broadcasting, I want to be able to defend the BBC. But the decision to take Gary Lineker off air is indefensible. It is undermining free speech in the face of political pressure - & it does always seem to be rightwing pressure it caves to.”
Opposition Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner also lambasted the BBC’s decision in a tweet on Saturday.
“The BBC’s cowardly decision to take Gary Lineker off air is an assault on free speech in the face of political pressure from Tory politicians. They should rethink,” she tweeted.
Meanwhile Nadine Dorries, an MP with the governing Conservative party and former Culture Secretary, welcomed the BBC’s decision, tweeting: “News that Gary Lineker has been stood down for investigation is welcome and shows BBC are serious about impartiality.
“Gary is entitled to his views – free speech is paramount. Lots of non Public Service Broadcasters can accommodate him and his views and he would be better paid.”
For his part, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Saturday issued a statement saying he hopes the situation between the BBC and its star soccer host can be resolved but it is not a matter for the UK government.