The UK’s public service broadcaster, the BBC, faced a growing crisis on Saturday following the suspension of former soccer star and program host Gary Lineker over comments criticizing the UK government’s new asylum policy.
As increasing numbers of players and emcees rallied in Lineker’s support, the national broadcaster faced allegations of political bias and suppression of free speech, as well as praise from some conservative politicians.
The controversy began on Tuesday with a tweet from Lineker’s account – which has 8.7 million followers – describing the government’s plan to detain and deport migrants arriving by boat as “an immeasurably cruel policy aimed at the most vulnerable people with a language not unlike that used by Germany in the 1930s.
Presenters of the BBC’s ‘Football Focus’ at lunchtime said they would not appear on the program in solidarity with Lineker.
The program was pulled from its schedule on Saturday and replaced it with an episode of the antiques show “Bargain Hunt”.
After a number of Lineker’s colleagues announced they would not appear on the show without him, the BBC said ‘Match of the Day’ would air on Saturday with no presenters or pundits.
There won’t even be any post-game player interviews. The Professional Footballers’ Association said some players wanted to boycott the show as a gesture of support and, as a result, “players involved in today’s matches will not be asked to participate in interviews with ‘Match of The Day'”.
‘Match of the Day’, which is broadcast on Saturday nights and shows highlights from the Premier League games played that day, has been a national institution since the 1960s. Lineker, its chief presenter since 1999, is the network’s highest-paid star, as well as one of the most lauded players in English football.
Lineker, whose club career included spells with Barcelona, Tottenham, Everton and Leicester, was the top scorer in the 1986 World Cup and finished his international career with 48 goals in 80 games for England.
The Conservative government called Lineker’s Nazi comparison offensive and unacceptable, and some lawmakers said he should be sacked.
On Friday, the BBC said the 62-year-old Lineker would “step back” from the “Match of the Day” until “we have an agreed and clear position on his use of social media”. Lineker has yet to comment publicly.