Gary Lineker steps back from “Match of the Day,” inspiring BBC boycott



LONDON — There’s only one topic of conversation feverishly consuming the United Kingdom this weekend: Soccer. But it’s not what’s going on between two rival teams on the pitch that’s causing a stir.

Instead, it’s a fierce debate about free speech, impartiality and a proposed government immigration law, which has seemingly pitted two hugely popular British institutions — the public broadcaster BBC and soccer, including its most famous presenters and commentators — against each other.

Several BBC TV and radio sports shows have been pulled off air this weekend as presenters, football stars and commentators have boycotted the broadcaster, including its beloved Saturday night sports show, “Match of the Day” — which has been recognized by the Guinness World Records as the longest running football TV show in history.

So what exactly is going on?

Well, it all began when the British government this week proposed to send almost all asylum seekers arriving on small boats via the English Channel back to their home country or to a “safe third country,” like Rwanda. The bill has been criticized by rights groups, and the United Nations which has described it as a “clear breach” of international law.

Among the critics was the former England soccer captain turned star television pundit, Gary Lineker, who hosts “Match of the Day” — which describes itself as “the world’s most famous football show” and is watched by millions.

Lineker decried the government proposal as an “immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable,” in a tweet Tuesday, that compared the government’s language to that used “by Germany in the 30s.”

In doing so, he set off a wave of opinion on both sides of the political spectrum. Many urged him to stay out of politics and stick to soccer, while others championed him as the moral conscience of the people.

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Conservative politicians criticized Lineker’s tweet, while his employer, the BBC, came under pressure from right-wing commentators to sanction him.

The broadcaster one of the most trusted sources of news and a producer of some of the most popular television entertainment in the country — is publicly funded, and has strict impartiality and social media guidelines for its staff who work in news, which prevents them from expressing opinions on controversial subjects.

Following days of pressure, the BBC said Friday that Lineker’s social media activity was in fact “a breach” of its guidelines, and that Lineker would therefore “step back from presenting Match of the Day until we’ve got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media.”

The reaction has been swift.

Lineker’s fellow hosts and pitchside commentators said they would not be appearing on “Match of the Day” in “solidarity” with Lineker, and fans began urging players not to give post-match interviews to the BBC.

The BBC was forced to announce it would be airing “Match of the Day” in a bare-bones format, with no studio presenters or punditry. The boycott also spread to other BBC TV and radio sport shows, leading to hours of footage being pulled at the last minute, the BBC reported.

On Twitter, the hashtags: #ImWithGary and #BoycottBBC were both trending Saturday as people vowed to boycott the show and a petition to reinstate Lineker has garnered almost 180,000 signatures so far.

Britain’s opposition Labour Party has called the BBC’s decision “cowardly” and “an assault on free speech,” while the National Union of Journalists described it as a “massive own goal,” adding that “yielding to sustained political pressure in this way is as foolish as it is dangerous.”

The BBC, which denies succumbing to political pressure, did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post.

The overall mood of the BBC newsroom Friday evening was one of shock, according to a journalist working there, who agreed to speak candidly about their workplace on the condition of anonymity.

The journalist joked they would remove their BBC badge when they left the building for the day — a reference to how popular Lineker is with much of the public and how contentious the row has become across Britain.

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Employee’s use of social media, impartiality and the expression of opinions have regularly caused controversy and debate, including at The Washington Post.

However, many of Lineker’s supporters have also argued that the BBC’s impartiality guidelines are aimed at employees working in news, rather than pundits or sports presenters. The BBC has previously argued that, as one of the BBC’s highest profile stars, Lineker was considered to have “an additional responsibility” to the BBC.

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U.K. press expert and former newspaper editor Alan Rusbridger told The Post on Saturday the focus on Lineker and the BBC was likely a “godsend” to the government, creating a distraction from the underlying issue of their immigration and asylum stance.

“Everyone’s arguing about Gary Lineker and not the policies they’ve just announced,” he said.

He added that the BBC had a number of “enemies” from commercial competitors to political parties of all stripes and had a tough job maintaining strict impartiality rules. “There is a culture war here. The BBC gets pulled into that because it has a huge output … across music, sports, politics, current affairs.”

“There’ll be something that offends culture warriors on one side or the other.”

A former BBC director general, Greg Dyke, made a rare public statement Saturday against the company he used to run, stating that “the BBC has undermined its own credibility,” with the Lineker debacle. “There is a long established precedent in the BBC that if you are an entertainment presenter or a sports presenter then you are not bound by those same rules,” he said of the company’s impartiality guidelines.

However, current BBC director general, Tim Davie, stood by the broadcaster’s decision, telling a BBC reporter: “We always look to take proportionate action, and that’s what we’ve done.”

Lineker, who has previously opened his home to at least two refugees, has been an outspoken critic of the government on asylum issues and reprimanded by the BBC in the past. He has yet to publicly comment on his sanctioning and his representatives did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Post.

However, earlier in the week he tweeted his thanks to supporters. “I want to thank each and every one of you. … I’ll continue to try to speak up for those poor souls that have no voice.”

Helier Cheung in London contributed to this report.


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