Match of the Day will be broadcast without presenters, pundits or its usual commentators this weekend, after the main host, Gary Lineker, was suspended from the BBC for breaching impartiality guidelines after criticising the government’s asylum policies.
In a dramatic and unexpected escalation of a crisis that has been brewing all week, the corporation took the decision to remove its highest-paid presenter from its flagship football show after he was criticised by Tory MPs and the rightwing media.
His suspension immediately led to displays of solidarity from Lineker’s co-hosts Ian Wright and Alan Shearer, who publicly announced that they would not be turning up to present Saturday’s show.
Faced with an effective strike by its on-screen staff and unable to find willing replacements, the BBC took the unprecedented decision to announce that the Premier League highlights programme would go ahead without any hosts or studio presentation. It will feature only match footage.
A BBC spokesperson said: “Some of our pundits have said that they don’t wish to appear on the programme while we seek to resolve the situation with Gary.
“We understand their position and we have decided that the programme will focus on match action without studio presentation or punditry.”
Late on Friday, commentator Steve Wilson tweeted that the show’s commentary team had decided to pull out of the programme. “As commentators on MOTD, we have decided to step down from tomorrow night’s broadcast,” he said. “We are comforted that football fans who want to watch their teams should still be able to do so, as management can use World Feed commentary if they wish.”
The BBC has the option to use the Premier League’s world feed service.
Ministers put the BBC under pressure after Lineker posted tweets this week criticising Rishi Sunak’s new asylum policy. He likened the language used by ministers about asylum seekers to “that used by Germany in the 30s”, a comparison labelled “offensive” by the home secretary, Suella Braverman.
A BBC spokesperson said Lineker would be off air until an agreement was reached on his future use of social media. If Lineker, who has two years left on his contract to present Match of the Day, refuses to back down, then it opens up the possibility of him leaving the corporation.
Lineker was taken off air on Friday afternoon despite making it clear that he wanted to host this weekend’s edition of the programme.
A BBC spokesperson said: “The BBC has been in extensive discussions with Gary and his team in recent days. We have said that we consider his recent social media activity to be a breach of our guidelines. The BBC has decided that he will step back from presenting Match of the Day until we’ve got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media.
“When it comes to leading our football and sports coverage, Gary is second to none. We have never said that Gary should be an opinion-free zone, or that he can’t have a view on issues that matter to him, but we have said that he should keep well away from taking sides on party political issues or political controversies.”
The Channel 5 News presenter Dan Walker was live on air while exchanging text messages with Lineker. According to Walker, Lineker emphasised that it was the BBC’s decision to take him off screen, saying: “They’ve told me I’ve had to step back.”
Wright, the former England footballer and a regular co-presenter, swiftly said he would not be working on this Saturday’s Match of the Day as a result of Lineker’s suspension. “Everybody knows what Match of the Day means to me, but I’ve told the BBC I won’t be doing it tomorrow. Solidarity,” he tweeted.
Shearer, who had also been booked to appear on Saturday’s show, confirmed that he would not turn up to work – leaving the BBC without any mainstream presenters for one of its best-known programmes.
Regular pundit and former Manchester City defender Micah Richards backed the decision of Wright and Shearer, tweeting: “I was not due to be working on MOTD tomorrow, but if I was, I would find myself taking the same decision that @IanWright0 & @alanshearer have.”
BBC presenter Jermaine Jenas also said he was standing “with his fellow pundits and Gary Lineker”. He tweeted: “Been on air with The One Show. I wasn’t down to be doing Match of the Day tomorrow, but if I was, I would of said no and stood with my fellow pundits and @GaryLineker.”
The presenter and former Arsenal and England player Alex Scott also appeared to rule herself out of presenting Saturday’s edition of Match of the Day amid speculation that she might take over. Scott tweeted a picture of US politician Bernie Sanders saying, “Nah! Not me” alongside the caption: “FYI.
While suspending Lineker for breaching impartiality guidelines, the BBC chair, Richard Sharp, has faced calls to quit in recent weeks. It was recently revealed that Sharp, a previous Tory donor, had made the introductions between Boris Johnson and one of the former prime minister’s distant cousins, who became a guarantor for a substantial loan. Sharp later claimed that he had acted “in good faith” as a “go-between”. Labour said his position was “increasingly untenable”.
The journalist Jon Sopel, who has held several senior positions at the BBC, said: “Lucky there are no producer guidelines on whether you need to declare facilitating an £800k loan to a prime minister while applying for a job as chairman of a broadcasting organisation.”
The former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville, a commentator for Sky Sports, said the decision was what happened when “you take on the Tories and the system”.
Philippa Childs, head of the entertainment trade union Bectu which represents thousands of BBC workers, said the broadcaster’s decision was “deeply concerning”. “It will give the appearance that they have bowed to political pressure from ministers to take someone off air for disagreeing with the policies of the current government,” she said.
“Taken with the ongoing controversy over the appointment of the BBC chairman, who has a much more important role in upholding the reputation of the BBC, and who has not stepped back while under investigation, it also risks giving the impression of double standards on these issues.”
Lineker’s comments dominated coverage of the government’s new asylum policy and were publicly criticised by a number of cabinet ministers. BBC sources suggested his decision to double down on the comments in further tweets, fanning the story, exasperated senior BBC management.
One issue for the BBC is whether Lineker would be happy to walk away from presenting Match of the Day, given that he has extensive business interests outside the corporation and has shown no indication that he will retract his comments.