What began as a tweet by a popular British soccer commentator comparing the language of the government’s new immigration plan to that of 1930s Germany has upended a leading sports program — once a politics-free haven of national unity — and erupted into a national argument over free speech.
At the center of the brouhaha is Gary Lineker, a former English soccer captain turned TV personality who regularly appears in commercials for one of the U.K.’s largest potato chip brands. Last week, he responded to Interior Minister Suella Braverman’s proposal to tackle what she called Britain’s “overwhelmed” asylum system.
The bill has been blasted by rights groups and criticized by the United Nations Human Rights Council, which said it was in “clear breach of the Refugee Convention” and would effectively result in an “asylum ban.”
Lineker called the proposal “beyond awful,” before doubling down when challenged, calling it “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”
Suddenly, the presenter, who is known for his lighthearted humor and wry asides, found himself subject to complaints from several members of the government and a target of the right-wing press. Braverman told the BBC that his comment “diminishes the unspeakable tragedy” of the Holocaust. (Lineker did not mention the Holocaust in his public comments.)
Lineker has faced criticism in the past for his use of social media, having tweeted about Brexit, government policy and donations to the ruling Conservative Party from Russian oligarchs. But his latest intervention hit a nerve with the government. According to a recent poll by British pollster YouGov, 73% of participants thought it was handling immigration issues badly.
Even Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has commented on Lineker’s response on Twitter to the video announcement from Braverman, who said the new bill would “mean that if you come here illegally you will not be able to stay. You will be detained and removed to your country, if safe, or a safe third country, like Rwanda.”
As it came under mounting pressure, the BBC announced Friday that Lineker was going to “step back from presenting its flagship soccer program ‘Match of the Day’ until we’ve got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media.” The national broadcaster added that it considered “his recent social media activity to be a breach of our guidelines.”
The move sparked outrage on social media, and the hashtags #ImWithGary and #BoycottBBC began trending on Twitter. Elsewhere, a petition to reinstate Lineker, the top scorer at the 1986 World Cup, had garnered almost 200,000 signatures by early Sunday.
And after Lineker’s sideline, commentators on “Match of the Day” — which holds the world record for the longest running soccer show — announced they were withdrawing from the program, which aired on Saturday night with no studio presenters or punditry. Soccer players and managers also refused to conduct interviews for the show, and the normal 80-minute running time was cut to 20 minutes.
Throughout the day on Saturday several other TV and radio hosts pulled out of presenting soccer and other sports shows, forcing the broadcaster to air reruns.
On Sunday the BBC said it would broadcast a women’s soccer game, without its own commentators, and that “Match of the Day 2,” which Lineker does not present, would be broadcast in a similar format to its sister show.
NBC News has reached out to Lineker for comment, but he did not respond to reporters when asked about the matter on Sunday.
While the government has said that decisions having to do with Lineker are up to the BBC, many in the know doubted this was entirely true.
The government “pushed the BBC to go in a very particular line,” Gholam Khiabany, a professor of politics and the media at Goldsmiths, University of London, told NBC News Saturday. It had “created a crisis” for the broadcaster by putting pressure on the organization to censure Lineker while later stating the matter was entirely “up to the BBC.”
The government had tried a similar tactic when it put pressure on the Freedom From Torture charity to remove a video it had posted to Twitter of a Holocaust survivor challenging Braverman about her language on immigration. Freedom From Torture refused to take it down, but Khiabany said the government had done the same thing to the BBC “and to some extent they have succeeded.”
Although it is technically independent of the state, the BBC is funded by an annual levy the government collects from everyone who owns a TV or radio. Because the broadcaster’s income was “determined by the government of the day,” it was “always a sword which is above the head of the BBC,” Khiabany said.
The debate has also raised questions over the future of other figures at the BBC, many of whom have expressed overt opinions or have been active in politics. Chief among them is BBC Chairman Richard Sharp, who has donated money to the ruling Conservative Party and is currently the subject of an ongoing parliamentary inquiry about the part he might have played in facilitating a loan worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He has denied any involvement in arranging the loan.
While Lineker is the BBC’s highest paid presenter, he is not a permanent member of the staff. As a freelancer, he presents programs on other stations, and the decision to remove him from “Match of the Day” prompted complaints about double standards from several commentators who pointed out that other personalities had previously expressed right-wing opinions without censure.
Internally, the BBC faces more pressing problems.
Staff past and present criticized the BBC’s handling of the issue, including Greg Dyke, its former director general, who told BBC Radio 4 that the broadcaster had “undermined its own credibility by doing this because it looks like — the perception out there — that the BBC has bowed to government pressure.”
Roger Mosey, a former head of BBC TV News, also tweeted Saturday that it looked like the broadcaster had “given in to one side of the culture war,” something he said was intensified by the presence of Sharp, the chairman, who he said “should go.”
“He damages the BBC’s credibility,” Mosey wrote, adding that “ideally Lineker should stay within clear, agreed guidelines.”
Acknowledging that “not everyone will always agree” with his new asylum policy, Prime Minister Sunak appeared to distance himself from the furor Saturday, saying in a statement that it was a matter for the BBC, “not the government.”
“Whatever happens, I think the BBC will come out of this much weaker than it was,” said Khiabany, adding that the corporation had “failed significantly on the notion of independence in journalism.”