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BBC and leading earner in stand-off over immigration policy comments

The BBC faced a mounting crisis as a row over football presenter Gary Lineker’s criticism of government migration policy led to a presenter mutiny, drew a comment from the prime minister and left the broadcaster’s boss defending his position.

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The BBC was forced to axe much of its sports coverage on Saturday as presenters refused to work in a show of solidarity with Lineker, after the BBC sought to defend its impartiality by taking him off the air due to his comments on social media.

Lineker, a former England football captain, the BBC’s highest-paid presenter and the anchor of the football highlights programme ‘Match of the Day’, was suspended from his role following his criticism of the British government’s migration policy.

Critics of Lineker’s suspension say the BBC bowed to government pressure, leading to a heated debate about the impartiality of the national broadcaster.

BBC Director General Tim Davie told the BBC on Saturday he had no intention of resigning over the matter. “We in the BBC, and myself, are absolutely driven by a passion for impartiality, not left, right or pandering to a particular party,” he said.

Davie said he wanted Lineker back on the air and hoped to find a balance which enabled some presenters to express opinions while at the same time maintaining the BBC’s neutrality.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak issued a statement on Saturday defending the migration policy, which bars the entry of asylum seekers arriving in small boats across the English Channel, saying he hoped Lineker and the BBC could resolve their differences in a timely manner.

The Lineker row severely disrupted the BBC’s sports programming on Saturday as multiple presenters walked out, prompting it to issue an apology.

The BBC is committed to being politically impartial, but has faced criticism from the Conservative and Labour parties about how neutral it actually is, particularly in the era of social media when high-profile presenters can easily make their personal positions known.

The opposition Labour Party and media commentators accuse the BBC of silencing Lineker, after Sunak’s spokeswoman called Lineker’s comments “unacceptable” and interior minister Suella Braverman said they were “offensive”.

Good heavens, this is beyond awful.

— Gary Lineker 💙💛 (@GaryLineker) March 7, 2023

The furore followed Sunak’s announcement of the new law earlier in the week. Lineker, 62, took to Twitter to describe the legislation as a “cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.”

Seeking to resolve the dispute, the BBC said there needed to be an agreed position on Lineker’s use of social media before he can return to presenting. But critics of Lineker’s suspension say he is entitled to his personal opinions because he is not a news presenter.

Critics of Lineker himself have noted that his demands for illegal immigrants be allowed entry to the UK when he lives in Barnes, south London, one of the least diverse parts of the country, are self-righteous and sanctimonious. Many have pointed out that he will not be living alongside any of the predominantly Albanian, Afghani, or Iraqi young men who have arrived on small boats.

Some commentators have suggested that the government’s new policy to tackle the issue of migrants arriving on small boats is merely an effort to win over their predominantly anti-immigration voter base.

It has been suggested that the Conservatives did very little about the issue for over four years but now recognise that taking a tough stance on the matter could help reverse flagging support in the polls.

Legal immigration has been more steeply on the rise since the mid 1990’s, although in the last couple of years it has shot up and in 2022 the Conservative Party oversaw an unprecedented 1.1 million new arrivals to the country, which equated to a net migration of 560,000; figured which dwarf the 45,755 migrants who crossed the channel on small boats last year.

That could turn viewers away from the 100-year-old BBC, which is funded by a GBP 159 (USD 192) annual licence fee tax on all television-watching households.

While the broadcaster remains a central presence in British cultural life, it is battling to stay relevant with younger audiences and faces threats to its funding as some Conservative lawmakers want to scrap the licence fee.

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