Gary Lineker was told by the BBC to “step back” from presenting his football show on Friday after the former England star sparked an impartiality row by criticizing the British government’s new asylum policy.
The 62-year-old, who fronts the flagship Match of the Day program, this week compared the language used to launch the new policy to the rhetoric of Nazi-era Germany on Twitter.
The BBC said it considered Lineker’s “recent social media activity to be a breach of our guidelines”, adding that he should avoid taking sides on political issues.
“The BBC has decided that he will step back from presenting Match Of The Day until we’ve got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media,” the broadcaster said in a statement.
The row was sparked by Lineker’s response to a video in which Home Secretary Suella Braverman unveiled plans to stop migrants crossing the Channel on small boats.
Lineker, the BBC’s highest-paid star, wrote on Twitter: “There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries.
“This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in a language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the ’30s.”
The Conservative government intends to outlaw asylum claims by all illegal arrivals and transfer them elsewhere, such as Rwanda, in a bid to stop thousands of migrants from crossing the Channel on small boats.
Stopping the boats is the “people’s priority”, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told the House of Commons earlier this week, vowing also to “break the criminal gangs” profiting from the journeys.
– Rights fears –
But rights groups and the United Nations said the legislation would make Britain an international outlaw under European and UN conventions on asylum.
Lineker tweeted on Thursday that he was “very much looking forward” to presenting Match Of The Day on Saturday.
He previously told reporters outside his London home that he stood by his criticism of the immigration policy and did not fear suspension by the BBC.
Friday’s BBC statement described Lineker as “second to none” in his sports presentation.
“We have never said that Gary should be an opinion-free zone, or that he cannot have a view on issues that matter to him, but we have said that he should keep well away from taking sides on party political issues or politics controversies,” it added.
But shortly afterwards, former Arsenal and England forward Ian Wright said he would not be appearing on the program this weekend in a show of support for Lineker.
“Everybody knows what Match of the Day means to me, but I’ve told the BBC I won’t be doing it tomorrow,” he tweeted. “Solidarity.”
Fellow pundit Alan Shearer, another former England striker, also said he would not appear on the show as many other broadcasters spoke up on Lineker’s behalf.
BBC director-general Tim Davie warned staff about their use of social media when he took on the role at the end of 2020.
Lineker is a freelance broadcaster for the BBC, not a permanent member of staff, and is not responsible for news or political content so does not need to adhere to the same strict rules on impartiality.
The former Barcelona and Tottenham player has hosted refugees at his home and has previously been vocal in his criticism of the government’s handling of migrant crossings.
He has long insisted that he is free to express his political opinions as he does not work for the BBC’s news or current affairs departments.
However, in October, he was found to have broken the BBC’s impartiality rules with a tweet about the Conservative Party.