Relief around Gary Lineker exposes vulnerability of BBC
It started with well-known former footballers Ian Wright and Alan Shearer. They no longer wanted to appear as analysts on British public broadcaster BBC’s sports programs. Other commentators like Jermain Defoe and Alex Scott joined the boycott, and not much later BBC presenters like Colin Murray, Mark Chapman, Jason Mohammad and Leon Osman followed.
All decided to lay off work this weekend in solidarity with Gary Lineker, who was suspended Friday as presenter of the famous soccer program Match of the Day. The result: all sports programming on television and radio is upside down this weekend. Some BBC programs have been taken off the air. Others, such as Match of the Day, are broadcast, but without presentation.
The trigger is a tweet by Lineker in which he strongly criticized the British government’s asylum policy. Earlier this week, Downing Street announced a new strict immigration law to stop the thousands of migrants crossing the Channel by boat.
Any migrant who enters the country illegally will now lose the right to asylum and be deported as soon as possible. The law is controversial because it is likely to violate international refugee and human rights treaties.
Lineker on Tuesday cited on Twitter fiercely lashed out at the government. According to him, it is a “cruel” policy that targets the “most vulnerable people.” He compared the government’s language “to language used by Germany in the 1930s.” On Friday, the BBC leadership decided that Lineker should stop presenting for the time being because he violated the broadcaster’s neutrality principle.
Match of the Day has been on the tube since 1964 and is by far the most popular sports program on British television. Every Saturday millions of people turn on to watch the Premier League summaries.
Since 1999, Gary Lineker, former captain of the England soccer team, has presented the program. With his lighthearted tongue-in-cheek style, he has become one of the most beloved presenters.
Lineker does not shy away from public debate. Via Twitter, he regularly gets involved in political discussions. For example, he is a staunch opponent of Brexit and is critical of the Conservative government’s immigration policy.
The BBC has always tolerated his utterances, although there is a strict policy on political statements by staff members. The broadcaster values independence and neutrality. According to the guidelines of the BBC Handbook, employees are not allowed to express political views on station or social media.
That rule applies in principle to all staff, although it is most strictly applied to news presenters. Staff on other programs such as sports broadcasts and entertainment shows generally have more freedom of movement.
Target of right-wing press
Why did the BBC intervene with Lineker this time and not before? For days, Lineker’s tweet dominated the front pages of the right-wing press, which screamed murder. So this is about much more than a riot around a presenter.
The BBC, along with the monarchy and the NHS health service, is considered one of the classic pillars of society, but it is an institution under pressure.
Auntie beeb, as the broadcaster is affectionately called, has for years been the target of right-wing tabloids like the Daily Mail and Conservative politicians. They think the BBC is too left-wing and “woke” and are campaigning to shortchange it financially. Nadine Dorries, media minister under Boris Johnson, announced last year that she would abolish the viewing and listening fees. In doing so, she would take away the BBC’s main source of income.
It didn’t come to that, but in that hostile climate, public broadcasting has become vulnerable. Right-wing media use every scandal to wash its ears and undermine the BBC. So the broadcasting management seems to have succumbed to pressure from the right-wing press to sideline Lineker.
The BBC insists that this is a temporary suspension of Lineker. But how long is temporary? Lineker has intimated that he is not prepared to retract his statements. For now, the BBC seems to have scored a spectacular own goal now that a whole host of presenters, commentators and analysts have quit their jobs. What began as a simple tweet has grown into a full-blown crisis at the British public broadcaster.