Britain’s finance minister on Sunday said “people’s confidence” in the BBC needed to be restored as the broadcaster’s boss vowed not to quit amid the chaos surrounding Gary Lineker’s removal as Match of the Day host.
Lineker was forced to “step back” from his duties presenting the flagship Premier League highlights show after accusing the UK government of using Nazi-era rhetoric in announcing its policy to tackle illegal immigration.
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The BBC said on Friday that Lineker, 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.
Former BBC chief Greg Dyke warned on Saturday that “it looks like – the perception out there – that the BBC has bowed to government pressure,” deepening an ongoing row over impartiality at the broadcaster.
Finance minister Jeremy Hunt told Sky News on Sunday that he “profoundly” disagreed with Lineker’s remarks, but that the decision was one for the BBC and its director general Tim Davie.
“The reason that it is a great national institution that we all treasure so much, is because it is respected for impartiality,” he said.
“We need to make sure that what comes out of this is that people’s confidence in the impartiality of the BBC is restored.”
Lineker’s critics claim the public-funded broadcaster has allowed him to use the platform afforded him as the face of its much-loved football show to influence contentious political issues.
But his backers accuse the broadcaster of taking their cues from Conservative politicians, pointing out that current BBC chairman Richard Sharp facilitated a loan guarantee for former prime minister Boris Johnson while applying for the job.
Prime Minister reacts
The decision to remove Lineker caused chaos to scheduled sports programming across the BBC’s television and radio output.
Former England players Ian Wright and Alan Shearer were among the pundits who refused to take up their usual roles on Match of the Day, followed by the programme’s commentators.
As a result, the longest-running football television programme in the world was aired for the first time without a presenter, pundits or even commentary in a shortened 20-minute highlights package of six matches from the English top-flight.
Despite the disrupted format, BBC entertainment correspondent Lizo Mzimba tweeted Sunday that viewing figures were up nearly half a million on last week’s audience, with 2.58 million people tuning in.
Weekend preview show Football Focus and results programme Final Score were also pulled from the schedule, as was Sunday’s round-up show Match of the Day 2, while BBC Radio 5Live’s coverage was disrupted.
When asked if he should resign over the Lineker issue, Davie replied: “Absolutely not.”
“I think that my job is to serve licence-fee payers and deliver a BBC that is really focused on world-class impartial landmark output, and I look forward to us resolving this situation and looking forward to delivering that.
He added: “To be clear, success for me is Gary gets 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.”
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Saturday he hoped the stand-off can be “resolved in a timely manner.”
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.
However, former BBC boss Mark Thompson told the broadcaster on Sunday that the former Leicester, Everton, Barcelona and Tottenham striker may have technically breached the guidelines.
He pointed to a section that says that non journalists “who nevertheless have an additional responsibility to the BBC because of their profile at the BBC” should avoid “taking sides on party political issues, or political controversies”.
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 with an annual salary of £1.35 million ($1.65 million, 1.53 million euros) according to the figures released last year, 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 percent backing the measures, with 36 percent opposed. But another of its polls published Saturday showed that 53 percent opposed Lineker’s removal, compared to 27 percent who backed it.