May 24. 2024. 5:58

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Gary Lineker row threatens to topple BBC chiefs and hit Tory asylum plans

The row triggered by Gary Lineker’s suspension from the BBC deepened on Saturday night as it threatened to bring down the corporation’s most senior leaders and even derail parts of the British government’s controversial new asylum policy.

The crisis reached new heights as the BBC was forced to dramatically scale down its TV and radio sports coverage and put its Match of the Day programme – normally fronted by Lineker – on air without presenters, pundits or the normal post-match interviews with players, many of whom came out in solidarity with him.

The show, scheduled for 80 minutes, only aired for 20 minutes on Saturday night.

On Saturday night the BBC chairman, Richard Sharp, and its director general, Tim Davie, were both under growing pressure to resign, after leading sports and media figures defended Lineker’s right to criticise what he regards as racist language used by ministers to promote their immigration policy. On Saturday evening, Mr Davie insisted he would not quit.

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Lineker-BBC row ‘a matter for them’, says Rishi Sunak

Lineker-BBC row ‘a matter for them’, says Rishi Sunak

Lineker BBC row ‘a matter for them’, says Rishi Sunak

Lineker BBC row ‘a matter for them’, says Rishi Sunak

Gary Lineker: BBC director-general says he will not resign over fallout from Match of the Day suspension

Gary Lineker: BBC director-general says he will not resign over fallout from Match of the Day suspension

In a sign that the government feared being seen as the reason for Lineker’s suspension, the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, described him as “a great footballer and a talented presenter”. He said he hoped “that the current situation between Gary Lineker and the BBC can be resolved in a timely manner, but it is rightly a matter for them, not the government”.

BBC staff past and present tore into the corporation’s handling of the wider freedom of speech and neutrality issues at the heart of the row.

Several contrasted the Lineker case with the controversy swirling around Mr Sharp, who is under scrutiny over the role he played in securing an £800,000 (€900,000) loan for Boris Johnson, when he was prime minister, at a time when Mr Sharp himself was applying for the post of BBC chair.

On Saturday, as reverberations were felt across the worlds of sport, media and politics, Liverpool’s German manager, Jürgen Klopp, waded in, defending Lineker’s right to speak out on what he said were human rights issues: “It is a really difficult world to live in, but if I understand it properly this is an opinion about human rights and that should be possible to say.”

Lineker was criticised by home secretary Suella Braverman after he compared the language used by ministers to describe their asylum policies to that of the Nazis in 1930s Germany. On Friday evening the popular former England striker was asked by the BBC to step back from Match of the Day while a resolution was sought.

The Observer understands that Lineker was told he had no option after he refused an offer to settle the matter with an apology. Earlier in the week he had been assured there would be no action taken against him, prompting some to suspect that pressure from government turned BBC minds against him.

Immediately after his suspension was announced, fellow presenters and pundits came out in solidarity, including Match of the Day regulars Ian Wright, Alan Shearer and Jermaine Jenas. Alex Scott, presenter of Football Focus, pulled out of her show, while much of BBC Radio 5 Live’s sports reporting was replaced by recorded content.

Amid signs that the row may be changing the public’s perception of government policy, there were signs of deep unease among leading Tories about the new approach to the small boats crisis. Under the latest policy, refugees arriving in the UK will be detained and deported “within weeks” – either to their own country if it is safe or a third nation.

Several senior Tories, including Priti Patel – herself a hardliner on immigration while in charge at the Home Office – are expected to raise their concerns about what the Bill, which has its second reading in the Commons on Monday, means for the treatment of children who arrive in the UK with their parents. Other Tory MPs are concerned that it breaches international law and the UK’s international treaty obligations.

The BBC apologised for changes to the weekend’s sporting schedule and said it was “working hard to resolve the situation and hope to do so soon”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer accused the BBC of “caving in” to Conservative MPs, saying such behaviour was “the opposite of impartial”. “They got this one badly wrong and now they’re very, very exposed,” Mr Starmer said. “Because at the heart of this is the government’s failure on the asylum system. And rather than take responsibility for the mess they’ve made, the government is casting around to blame anybody else – Gary Lineker, the BBC, civil servants, the ‘blob’.”

Ed Davey, the Lib Dem leader, called for Mr Sharp to resign. “We need leadership at the BBC that upholds our proud British values and can withstand today’s consistently turbulent politics and Conservative bullying tactics.

“Sadly, under Richard Sharp’s leadership, this has not been the case: his appointment and position are now totally untenable and he must resign.”

Much of the anger among BBC staff focuses on the appointment of Mr Sharp as chairman. Even those who support BBC attempts to rein in Lineker’s political comments argue that Mr Sharp, whose actions are still under investigation because he failed to mention the aid he gave Mr Johnson when he was interviewed for the job, has already seriously damaged the image of the public service broadcaster.

BBC 5 Live presenter Nihal Arthanayake said: “The director general has been very clear that impartiality is his priority and I have seen that play out with a focus that I have not witnessed before. One of the many questions raised by Gary and his tweets is while he has been asked to ‘step back’, why is a man who is reported to have donated £400k to the Conservative party still the chairman of the BBC? – Guardian