Britain divided over BBC sports presenter's asylum policy remarks

Gary Lineker posted tweet comparing language of policy to that used by 1930s Germany

13:58 . 13/03/2023 Pazartesi
File photo

File photo

Immigration has once again become one of the most controversial issues in the UK as a dispute over BBC sports presenter Gary Lineker's criticism of the government's latest asylum policy is a top daily item for the media.

The British public and policy divide over the "Lineker row" emerged after the Match of the Day presenter posted tweets comparing the language of the policy to that used by Nazi Germany.

On Tuesday, in response to a video message by Interior Minister Suella Braverman about stopping migrant boats, he tweeted: "Good heavens, this is beyond awful."

Lineker dismissed Braverman's claim that there was an influx of migrants to the UK, noting that the country takes far fewer refugees than other major European countries.

"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," he wrote on Twitter.

Lineker's comments have been both widely criticized and lauded by various parts of society. However, the BBC's "impartiality rules" have brought the issue to another stage as the broadcaster is funded through a license fee paid by UK households.

- Criticism, support

Two days after posting the tweets on the immigration policy, Lineker told reporters he did not regret his remarks, adding that "of course" he stood by them.

On Friday, the BBC said in a statement that he would step back from presenting the BBC Match of the Day program until a deal is reached on his use of social media.

Previously, the corporation said it was having a "frank conversation" with Lineker about the broadcasting company's guidelines on remaining impartial.

Meanwhile, Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer said it was "important for the BBC to retain impartiality if it is to retain the trust of the public, who pay the license fee."

Amid this backlash Lineker also received profound support for his comments. His co-hosts, Ian Wright and Alan Shearer, boycotted the program and announced that they would not appear on it in solidarity with the former football player.

Other English football pundits and former professional players, Micah Richards, Jermaine Jenas, and Alex Scott, joined them.

Following the developments, the BBC had confirmed there would be no presenter or pundits on Match of the Day on Saturday.

Amid the row, Tim Davie, the BBC's director general, was called on to resign by many on social media.

In an interview with BBC News following the row, Davie said he would "absolutely not" resign but apologized to license fee payers after a day of sports program disruption.

"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," said British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Saturday, according to local media reports.

It marked the first time the premier had commented since the BBC took Lineker off the show.

Support for Lineker also came from his son George on Sunday, who tweeted: "Proud of the old man after a busy few days. Shouldn't need to apologise for being a good person and standing by his word. The reaction of the public has been overwhelming. Thanks for the support."

- Row in public debate

Lineker's stance has also become key in the public debate on the government's controversial immigration policy as various sides cite his comments as they express their positions on the matter.

Saturday's protest and counter-protest in the town of Cannock in Staffordshire was an example of this, with both pro- and anti-migrant demonstrators using the former England striker's name during their protests.

Barbara, who took part in the protest organized by the Cannock Chase Welcomes Refugees group, carried an "I'm with Gary" sign. On the other side, a supporter of the far-right group Patriotic Alternative was also carrying a sign with swear words against Lineker.

Another protest, organized by Stand Up To Racism, will take place outside the BBC's offices in London on March 18 to reject the government's controversial migration bill.

"#GaryLineker made an important stand," the group said on Twitter.

The Lineker row has remained on British newspapers' front pages since last Tuesday.

Tense debate continues among social media users, with many claiming that the BBC would not have taken similar action had Lineker been defending the government's policy instead of criticizing it.

Others, however, pointed out the BBC's rule of "impartiality," saying none of the broadcaster's staff should pick a political stance on air.

- BBC impartiality, license fees

Impartiality, which is a key point in the ongoing controversy, is among the principles that are listed on the BBC's editorial guidelines.

"The BBC is committed to achieving due impartiality in all its output. This commitment is fundamental to our reputation, our values and the trust of audiences," it says.

However, Lineker, a freelance broadcaster, is not a permanent BBC staff member. Further, he voiced his remarks on social media to his more than 8 million Twitter followers.

The BBC said it does not intend to prevent the use of social media but to ensure that anyone working for the BBC uses it with appropriate regard for its values.

Meanwhile, the corporation said its expectation on those involved in its programming to avoid taking sides on political controversies were not limited to its journalistic staff.

"There are also others who are not journalists or involved in factual programming who nevertheless have an additional responsibility to the BBC because of their profile on the BBC. We expect these individuals to avoid taking sides on party political issues or political controversies and to take care when addressing public policy matters."

The public also pay the license fee for BBC shows and services, including TV, radio, the BBC website, podcasts, iPlayer and apps.

Last year, the fee raised a total of £3.8 billion (over $4.5 billion), according to official data.

"In exchange for license fee money, the BBC is committed to provide public service broadcasting. According to its Royal Charter this means its mission is "to act in the public interest" by providing "impartial, high-quality and distinctive" content, which will "inform, educate and entertain" everyone who pays the licence fee," according to the BBC.

- Controversial migration bill

The British government introduced its migration bill last week in a bid to address the increasing number of illegal "small boat" crossings that arrive in the UK via the English Channel.

According to the government, the bill seeks to ensure that those who come to Britain illegally would be unable to claim asylum, benefit from "modern slavery protections," make "spurious" human rights claims, or stay in the UK.

The bill drew fierce criticism from many, including charities, the opposition, and international organizations.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, expressed concern on the matter, saying that if passed, the legislation would amount to an "asylum ban."

Additionally, during the Prime Minister's Questions session in parliament on Wednesday, main opposition Labour party leader Keir Starmer suggested that the Conservative governments were incapable of stopping small boat crossings.

"This is their fifth prime minister, the sixth immigration plan, the seventh home secretary. And after all this time, all they offer is the same old gimmicks and empty promises," he said, underlining that after 13 years of Conservative rule, small boat crossings were higher than ever.

In response to Starmer's remarks, Prime Minister Sunak defended the bill, saying that stopping the boats was a priority of the public.

"He's just another leftie lawyer standing in our way," added Sunak, referring to Starmer.

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