Former England team captain Gary Lineker has been temporarily removed from his role as presenter of the BBC’s flagship football highlights Match of the Day show in the wake of his criticism of the UK government’s new policy towards asylum seekers.
The BBC’s removal of Lineker from the show – a national institution in the UK that has been airing since the 1960s – marks an extraordinary development and was followed by an outpouring of public support for Lineker and a slew of his colleagues announcing they would not appear on the show without him.
In a Twitter post on Tuesday to his 8.7 million followers, Lineker – one of England’s greatest football players and now among the UK’s most influential media figures – said the language used by members of the UK government towards asylum seekers was similar to that used in Nazi Germany.
“The BBC has decided that he will step back from presenting ‘Match of the Day,’” the BBC said late on Friday, “until we’ve got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media”.
“We have never said that Gary should be an opinion-free zone, or that he can’t have a view on issues that matter to him, but we have said that he should keep well away from taking sides on party political issues or political controversies,” the BBC said.
Conservative Party members of parliament had called on the BBC to discipline Lineker after he tweeted that the government’s plan to detain and deport asylum seekers arriving by boat was “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s”.
“There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries,” he wrote.
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?
— Gary Lineker 💙💛 (@GaryLineker) March 7, 2023
The government called Lineker’s Nazi comparison inappropriate and unacceptable while some members of parliament said he should be fired.
Lineker has yet to make an official comment on his temporary dismissal, though one of his former BBC colleagues – Dan Walker – said he had been in contact with Lineker and asked him “whether he is stepping back or whether the BBC have told him to step back”.
Walker said Lineker replied to him that the BBC “told me I have to step back”.
“So Gary Lineker wants to continue to present ‘Match Of The Day’ and is not apologising for what he has said,” Walker said on Channel 5, where he works, “but he has said it’s a BBC decision to force him to not present the program at the moment”.
In solidarity with Lineker’s stance, Alan Shearer and Ian Wright – former England players who work as pundits on Match of the Day – said on Twitter they would not be appearing on the programme this weekend.
I have informed the BBC that I won’t be appearing on MOTD tomorrow night.
— Alan Shearer (@alanshearer) March 10, 2023
Everybody knows what Match of the Day means to me, but I’ve told the BBC I won’t be doing it tomorrow. Solidarity.
— Ian Wright (@IanWright0) March 10, 2023
The BBC said it considered Lineker’s “recent social media activity to be a breach of our guidelines”, adding he should avoid taking sides on political issues.
Funded by a license fee paid by all households with a television, the BBC has a duty to be impartial and news staff are barred from expressing political opinions.
But as a freelancer who does not work in news or current affairs, Lineker is not bound by the same rules and he often delves into politics and human rights issues with his tweets.
The BBC’s neutrality has come under recent scrutiny over revelations that its chairman, Richard Sharp – a Conservative Party donor – helped arrange a loan for then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2021, weeks before he was appointed to the BBC post on the government’s recommendation.
Support for Lineker surged on social media on Friday night and questions were raised regarding the BBC’s impartiality and its lack of action on other figures who had taken public stances on political issues.
Dear @BBC. In the interests of fairness could you please now ask @Lord_Sugar to step aside from @bbcapprentice . Otherwise people may wonder if you are truly impartial @GaryLineker pic.twitter.com/GY2JurOiLy
— alan rusbridger (@arusbridger) March 10, 2023
‘Stop the boats’
The Conservative government has come under fire for its plans to outlaw asylum claims by people arriving on the UK’s shores by boat and transfer them elsewhere, such as Rwanda.
Human rights groups and the United Nations said the policy, referred to as “stop the boats”, would make the UK an international outlaw under European and UN conventions on protections afforded to those seeking asylum.
The opposition Labour party said the BBC’s taking “Gary Lineker off air is an assault on free speech in the face of political pressure”.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called the BBC’s move “indefensible”.
After more of his co-workers, like former football players Alex Scott, Jermaine Jenas and Micah Richards, said they would not want to work on Match of the Day because of the treatment of Lineker, the BBC decided the format of the show, which airs on Saturdays.
“Some of our pundits have said that they don’t wish to appear on the program while we seek to resolve the situation with Gary,” the BBC said in its statement on Friday.
“We understand their position and we have decided that the program will focus on match action without studio presentation or punditry,” it said.
The 62-year-old Lineker was a household name in the UK well before he became a smooth, knowledgeable presenter of sports shows on the BBC and other broadcasters. He was the leading scorer at the 1986 World Cup and finished his international career with 48 goals in 80 matches for England.
His club career included spells with Barcelona, Tottenham, Everton and Leicester.