BBC sports presenters refuse to work after host suspended for criticizing British migrant policy

Britain's BBC was forced to axe much of its sports coverage on Saturday after presenters refused to work in a show of solidarity with Gary Lineker, as a row over freedom of speech threatens to turn into a crisis for the national broadcaster.

Former soccer star Gary Lineker compared home secretary's asylum seeker comments to Nazi-era rhetoric

A man wearing styled grey hair, wearing glasses and suit and tie, exits a brick building.
Former British soccer player and BBC presenter Gary Lineker leaves his home in London on Saturday, as the public broadcaster comes under fire for suspending the star anchor. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

Britain's BBC was forced to axe much of its sports coverage on Saturday after presenters refused to work in a show of solidarity with Gary Lineker, as a row over freedom of speech threatens to turn into a crisis for the national broadcaster.

Former England soccer captain Lineker, the BBC's highest paid presenter and the anchor of the soccer highlights program Match of the Day, was taken off air by the broadcaster on Friday after criticizing Britain's migration policy earlier in the week.

Many sports programs did not air as scheduled on Saturday after multiple presenters walked out, prompting the BBC to apologize to viewers.

"We are working hard to resolve the situation and hope to do so soon," the broadcaster said in a statement.

The BBC's director general, Tim Davie, said on Saturday he would not resign over the crisis.

The Lineker row has sparked a debate over the BBC's neutrality, and pitched the government against one of the country's most high-profile and popular sports presenters.

Lineker declined to comment to media as he left his London home on Saturday, and did not reply to questions from reporters on arrival at the King Power Stadium in Leicester where he went to watch his former club play.

Comparisons to Nazi rhetoric

The furore comes after British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a new law earlier in the week that bars the entry of asylum seekers arriving in small boats across the English Channel.

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Lineker, 62, took to Twitter to describe the legislation as a "cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s."

Sunak issued a statement on Saturday defending the policy, saying he hoped Lineker and the BBC could resolve their differences in a timely manner.

"It is rightly a matter for them, not the government," Sunak said, adding it was important to maintain perspective given the seriousness of the migration issue, which saw 45,000 people risk their lives crossing the channel illegally last year.

Home Secretary Suella Braverman said Lineker's reaction to the policy was "offensive."

Seeking to resolve the dispute, the BBC said there needed to be an agreed position on Lineker's use of social media before he can return to presenting.

BBC neutrality under scrutiny

The BBC is committed to being politically impartial, but has faced criticism from the Conservative and Labour parties about how neutral it actually is, particularly in the era of social media, used by high-profile presenters to make their personal positions known.

Davie revealed a 10-point impartiality plan in 2021 after a number of disputes, but none have snowballed like the current one. He said on Saturday he wouldn't resign over the Lineker matter.

 A person walks in front of a concrete building with a glass sign reading "BBC" above the entryway.
A person walks outside the BBC headquarters in central London on Saturday. The public broadcaster is embroiled in controversy over comments a prominent sportscaster made about British migration policy. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

The opposition Labour Party and media commentators accuse the BBC of silencing Lineker, bowing to pressure from the Conservative government.

"The BBC is not acting impartially by caving in to Tory MPs who are complaining about Gary Lineker," Labour leader Keir Starmer told reporters at a conference in Wales on Saturday.

Broadcaster under fire

But critics of Lineker's suspension say he is entitled to his personal opinions because he is not presenting a news program.

Greg Dyke, who was director general of the BBC between 2000 and 2004, told BBC radio earlier on Saturday that the BBC had made a mistake by taking Lineker off air because it gives the impression the government can tell the broadcaster what to do.

"The perception out there is going to be that Gary Lineker, a much-loved television presenter, was taken off air after government pressure on a particular issue," he said.

Three people hold signs above their heads in front of a crowd of seated people in a stadium.
Leicester City fans hold up signs in support of Lineker in the stands before a Premier League match at King Power Stadium in Leicester, England, on Saturday. (Andrew Boyers /Action Images via Reuters)

That could turn viewers away from the 100-year-old BBC, which is funded by what is in effect a $192 annual "licence fee" tax on all television-watching households.

While the broadcaster remains a central presence in British cultural life, it is battling to stay relevant with younger audiences and faces threats to its funding as some Conservative lawmakers want to scrap the licence fee.

Questions about BBC chairman Richard Sharp pose a further challenge for the broadcaster.

Sharp is under pressure for failing to declare his involvement in facilitating a loan for former Conservative prime minister Boris Johnson shortly before he was appointed to the role. Sharp's appointment, made on the recommendation of the government, is now being reviewed by Britain's public appointments watchdog.

LISTEN | Migrants risk lives to reach British shores:
At least four people died when their boat sank in the English Channel this week, a route taken by tens of thousands of migrants and refugees trying to reach the U.K. Matt Galloway discusses these perilous journeys and the lack of legal routes for some nationalities, with Nando Sigona, chair of international migration and forced displacement at the University of Birmingham; and Christa Rottensteiner, chief of mission with the International Organization for Migration in the U.K., a United Nations agency.