British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said he hoped a stand-off between Gary Lineker and the BBC can be “resolved in a timely manner” after the British broadcaster’s sport service was decimated on Saturday.
Lineker was forced to “step back” from his duties presenting flagship Premier League highlights show Match of the Day by BBC bosses after accusing Sunak’s government of using Nazi-era rhetoric in tackling illegal immigration.
The BBC said on Friday that England’s fourth highest goalscorer of all-time had breached guidelines on impartiality and the corporation would seek “an agreed and clear position on his use of social media” before an on-screen return.
However, the decision caused chaos to scheduled sports programming across the BBC’s television and radio output.
Pundits and former England strikers Ian Wright and Alan Shearer immediately tweeted they would not take up their usual roles on Match of the Day, followed by the programme’s commentators.
Wright then said on his podcast on Saturday he would quit the BBC if Lineker was sacked for good.
Weekend preview show Football Focus and results programme Final Score were also pulled from the schedule due to presenters and pundits pulling out.
“Gary Lineker was a great footballer and is a talented presenter. I hope 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,” Sunak said in a statement.
Saturday sports schedules for BBC Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were also amended.
“As a keen sports fan I know to miss programming is a real blow and I’m sorry about that. We are working very hard to resolve this situation and make sure we get output on air,” said the BBC’s director general Tim Davie.
“Everyone wants to calmly resolve the situation. Gary Lineker’s the best in the business — that’s not for debate.”
Match of the Day, a Saturday night fixture since 1964 and the longest-running football television programme in the world, will air without pundits or a presenter for the first time.
The programme will be cut to 20 minutes and include highlights without commentary.
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 Leicester striker was in attendance at the King Power Stadium to watch his home town club lose 3-1 to Chelsea, but did not speak to reporters.
Some Leicester fans showed their support for Lineker with placards reading: “I’m with Gary, migrants welcome.”
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: “This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in 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 to other countries, such as Rwanda, in a bid to stop the crossings, which totalled more than 45,000 last year.
A YouGov poll published on Monday showed 50 per cent backing the measures, with 36 per cent opposed.
But rights groups and the United Nations said the legislation would make Britain an international outlaw under European and UN conventions on asylum.
Some 36 Tory lawmakers have sent a letter to the BBC warning the affair will “no doubt shake many people’s already fragile confidence” in the corporation’s impartiality.
The BBC’s move sparked a wave of criticism from politicians and public figures, many of whom accused it of buckling to demands from Conservative lawmakers.
Opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer said the BBC “got this one badly wrong and now they’re very, very exposed”, while a petition calling for Lineker to be reinstated has attracted over 180,000 signatures.
The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) described the action taken against Lineker as a “massive own goal on the part of the BBC.”
The NUJ’s general secretary Michelle Stanistreet added: “Yielding to sustained political pressure in this way is as foolish as it is dangerous.”
The issue has brought to a head years of debate over BBC impartiality, which intensified after Britain voted to leave the European Union in 2016.
Former BBC director general Greg Dyke said the broadcaster had made a mistake.
“The real problem today is that the BBC has undermined its own credibility by doing this,” he told the broadcaster, adding it could create the impression that the “BBC has bowed to government pressure”.
The Lineker row comes at a particularly heated period after allegations that BBC chairman Richard Sharp facilitated a loan guarantee for former prime minister Boris Johnson while applying for the job.