British prime minister Rishi Sunak said the row surrounding Gary Lineker and the BBC is “a matter for them, not the government” as he acknowledged “not everyone will always agree” with his new asylum policy.
The controversy, which has involved the broadcaster taking the sports pundit off air, began when Lineker branded the government’s plans to tackle small boat crossings in the Channel as “immeasurably cruel” and compared the language used to launch the policy with 1930s Germany.
Commenting for the first time since the BBC stood Lineker down from Match of the Day hosting duties, the prime minister said he hoped the dispute could be “resolved in a timely manner”.
He continued to defend his proposals to permanently ban asylum seekers who arrive in the UK on unauthorised small boats.
Mr Sunak said: “As prime minister, I have to do what I believe is right, respecting that not everyone will always agree. That is why I have been unequivocal in my approach to stopping the boats.
“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.
“While that process is ongoing, it is important that we maintain perspective, particularly given the seriousness of the issue at hand. Forty-five thousand people crossed the channel illegally last year, many of whom have been exploited or trafficked by criminal gangs, putting their lives in danger.
“We need to break this cycle of misery once and for all and the policy we set out this week I believe aims to do just that. It is not only the fair and moral thing to do, it is also the compassionate thing to do.”
Mr Sunak was offering “weasel words” and ducking “any responsibility,” Labour’s shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell said in response.
“The prime minister’s claim that this disruption to the BBC’s football coverage was nothing to do with the government might have credibility if Tory MPs hadn’t spent more time talking about Gary Lineker than, say, the cost-of-living crisis, mortgages rising, seven million waiting on NHS waiting lists, criminals going unpunished or any of their countless failures. It’s the Tory way. To distract and inflame, rather than to fix their own mess.”
Ms Powell also wrote to culture secretary Lucy Frazer to demand that BBC chairman Richard Sharp’s position is “urgently clarified”, saying he is “totally unable” to handle the row as his involvement in arranging an £800,000 loan facility for Boris Johnson has “profoundly damaged the perception of the BBC’s impartiality and independence from government”.
Some of Mr Sunak’s Conservative Party colleagues have been outspoken in their criticism of Lineker, with home secretary Suella Braverman previously accusing him of “diminishing the unspeakable tragedy” of the Holocaust.
Former culture secretary Nadine Dorries said the ex-England striker “does need to decide… is he a footie presenter or a candidate for the Labour Party?”
But the BBC has faced a backlash from other politicians for telling Lineker to step back from hosting the Saturday edition of the football highlights programme in the row over impartiality.
Sir Keir Starmer said the broadcaster was “caving in” to Tory MPs and was “the opposite of impartial”.
The Labour leader told broadcasters at Welsh Labour’s conference on Saturday: “The BBC is not acting impartially by caving in to Tory MPs who are complaining about Gary Lineker.
“They got this one badly wrong and now they’re very, very exposed.
“As is the government, because at the heart of this is the government’s failure on the asylum system. And rather than take responsibility for the mess they’ve made, the Government is casting around to blame anybody else – Gary Lineker, the BBC, civil servants, the ‘blob’.
“What they should be doing is standing up, accepting they’ve broken the asylum system, and telling us what they’re going to do to actually fix it, not whingeing on about Gary Lineker.”
Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner branded the BBC’s move “an assault on free speech”.
Labour MP Jess Phillips told Times Radio: “If Gary Lineker had tweeted ‘stop the boats’, he would still be on air tonight.” - PA