- Prime Minister Sunak says the row is a problem for the BBC
- The broadcaster’s general manager says he will not resign
- The BBC had to cancel much of its sports coverage on Saturday
- Many bidders support Lineker by refusing to work
- The controversy over immigration comments sparks a debate about neutrality
LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s BBC has faced an escalating crisis as a row over football presenter Gary Lineker’s criticism of government immigration policy sparks a mutiny by Moghaddam, prompting the prime minister’s suspension and leaving the broadcaster’s chief to fend for office.
The BBC was forced to cancel much of its sports coverage on Saturday as broadcasters refused to work in a show of solidarity with Lineker, after the BBC sought to defend its impartiality by taking him off the air over his comments on social media.
Lineker, the former England football captain, the BBC’s highest-paid broadcaster and presenter of Match of the Day, has been suspended from his role after criticizing British immigration policy.
Critics of Linker’s suspension say the BBC has bowed to government pressure, leading to a fierce debate over national broadcaster’s impartiality.
BBC director general Tim Davey told the BBC on Saturday he had no intention of resigning over the matter. “We’re at the BBC and I’m totally driven by impartiality, not left or right or sticking to one particular party,” he said.
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Davey said he wanted Lineker back on the air, and hoped to find a balance that would enable some of the presenters to express their views while at the same time maintaining the BBC’s impartiality.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak issued a statement on Saturday defending the immigration policy, which bars entry to asylum seekers arriving in small boats across the English Channel, saying he hoped Lineker and the BBC could resolve their differences in time.
“It is their right, not the government’s,” Sunak said.
The Lineker row severely disrupted BBC Sports programming on Saturday as several presenters walked out, prompting an apology.
Saturday’s version of “Match of the Day”, which Lineker has presented for more than 20 years, was broadcast at the usual time despite his absence, but it was reduced to just 20 minutes and broadcast as a highlight show without commentary.
The BBC is committed to political impartiality, but has faced criticism from the Conservative and Labor parties about how impartial it actually is, particularly in the age of social media where high-profile presenters can easily reveal their personal positions.
The opposition Labor Party and media commentators accuse the BBC of silencing Lineker, after Sunak’s spokeswoman called Lineker’s remarks “unacceptable” and Home Secretary Soella Braverman said they were “offensive”.
“The BBC is not acting with integrity by caving in to Tory MPs who complain about Gary Lineker,” Labor leader Keir Starmer told reporters at a conference in Wales on Saturday.
Lineker declined to comment to the media when he left his London home on Saturday and did not answer questions from reporters upon his arrival at the King Power Stadium in Leicester, where he had gone to watch one of his former clubs play.
The uproar followed Sunak’s announcement of the new law earlier in the week. Lineker, 62, took to Twitter to describe the legislation as “a ruthless policy targeting the most vulnerable with language not unlike that used by Germany in the 1930s.”
Seeking to resolve the dispute, the BBC said there would have to be an agreed position on Lineker’s use of social media before he could return to the show. But critics of Lineker’s comment say he is entitled to his own opinions because he is not a news anchor.
Greg Dyke, who was the BBC’s director general between 2000 and 2004, told BBC Radio earlier on Saturday that the BBC had made a mistake.
“The prevailing perception would be that Gary Lineker, the much-loved TV presenter, was taken off the air after government pressure over a particular issue,” Dyke said.
This could alienate viewers from the 100-year-old BBC, which is funded by an annual “licensing fee” tax of 159 pounds ($192) on all households that watch television.
While the broadcaster remains a central presence in British cultural life, it is struggling to stay in touch with younger audiences and is facing threats to its funding as some Conservative lawmakers want a license fee abolished.
Questions about BBC Chairman Richard Sharp pose an extra challenge for the broadcaster.
Sharp is under pressure for failing to announce his involvement in facilitating a loan for former Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson shortly before he was appointed to the post. Sharpe’s appointment is reviewed, on the recommendation of the government, by Britain’s Public Appointments Watch.
Written by Sarah Young in London. Additional reporting by Hrithika Sharma and Adi Nair in Bengaluru, Henry Nicholls in London and Toby Melville in Leicester. Editing by Hugh Lawson, Helen Popper, David Holmes and Paul Simao
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