Soccer hero’s tweet on asylum kicks up huge culture war and 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.

It 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 has described it as a “clear breach” of international law.

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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.”

He drew reaction from 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, and 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 prevent 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 sideline 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 sports 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, but its director general offered an apology to license fee payers Saturday. “Success for me is getting Gary back on air and together we are giving to the audiences that world-class sports coverage which, as I say, I’m sorry we haven’t been able to deliver today,” Tim Davie said (via the BBC). Davie added that he would “absolutely not” resign and said, “We are working very hard to resolve the situation.”

Davie also denied that there had been “pandering” to any political side.

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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Employees’ 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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British 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.

Lineker, who has previously opened his home to at least two refugees, has been an outspoken critic of the government on asylum issues and has been 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 and Cindy Boren in Washington contributed to this report.


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