LONDON (Reuters) – Former England football captain Gary Lineker returned to host the BBC’s flagship soccer show on Saturday, a week after his suspension for criticising government immigration policy caused a row over the broadcaster’s impartiality rules.
BBC managers reversed their decision to suspend Lineker, the broadcaster’s highest-paid presenter, after his colleagues refused to work in solidarity last weekend, forcing it to air soccer matches without normal commentary.
The controversy shook the public broadcaster, which is funded by a levy on nearly all British households with televisions, and which often faces accusations of bias from across the political spectrum.
“It was a really difficult situation for everyone concerned,” Lineker’s co-presenter Alan Shearer said in a short statement to viewers before the start of the BBC’s broadcast of an FA Cup quarter-final game between Burnley and Manchester City.
“And through no fault of their own, some really great people on TV and in radio were put in an impossible situation, and that wasn’t fair. So it’s good to get back to some sort of normality and be talking about football again,” Shearer said.
Lineker said: “I absolutely echo those sentiments.”
Lineker, who has hosted refugees in his home, had been suspended on March 10 for a tweet that called government policy on migration “immeasurably cruel” and compared language used to support it to “that used by Germany in the 30s”.
BBC news reporters and current affairs presenters are required to avoid making politically partisan statements, though those guidelines do not generally apply to other staff or to presenters on freelance contracts such as Lineker.
He refused to apologise for his tweet and the opposition Labour Party accused the broadcaster of caving in to government pressure by suspending him. After reinstating Lineker, the BBC said it would review how its impartiality guidelines applied to freelance presenters’ use of social media.
Reducing illegal migration is one of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s top policy goals for 2023.
More than 45,000 people – mostly young men from Albania, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq – crossed the Channel in small boats last year, preferring to seek asylum in Britain rather than other countries they had travelled through in Europe.
Interior minister Suella Braverman has described these arrivals as an “invasion” and is seeking to deport thousands of migrants to Rwanda.
(Reporting by David Milliken; Editing by Peter Graff)