The BBC has made a “huge mistake” by forcing Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker off air, a former sports minister has warned as the row over freedom of speech escalated.
The broadcaster is facing a growing crisis after presenters and pundits staged an extraordinary mutiny in solidarity with Lineker, who was asked to “step back” from Match of the Day over remarks made on Twitter.
Lineker was taken off air for a tweet which compared the language used by home secretary Suella Braverman to launch a new government asylum seeker policy with Nazi Germany.
With Football Focus and Final Score axed from schedules and Match of the Day set to go ahead without presenters, BBC insiders told The Independent that the corporation will try to renegotiate Lineker’s contract to make the rules around social media use and impartiality more explicit.
Ex-cabinet ministers have warned the BBC’s position “doesn’t make any sense” and is a “complete inconsistency” given the outspoken nature of ex-political stars Andrew Neil and John Humphrys, and the scandal over chair Richard Sharp’s role in facilitating a loan to Boris Johnson.
“The BBC are making a huge mistake,” Blair-era sports secretary Chris Smith told The Independent. “They are kowtowing to instructions from Tory MPs, government ministers and the right-wing press. They really ought to see sense and find a suitable way of backing down.”
With dozens of Tory MPs now demanding an independent probe into Lineker’s comments, Mr Smith suggested that those calling for the presenter’s head “are precisely the same people who have been leaping up and down condemning cancel culture and lauding freedom of speech”.
He added that the BBC should be “in favour of free speech in all settings”.
His successor, Ben Bradshaw, a Labour MP and former BBC radio reporter, suggested that many of the broadcaster’s journalists “must be absolutely tearing their hair out over this managerial incompetence”, warning that the row “damages the reputation of the BBC”.
It is “a moment of great danger” for the broadcaster, Mr Bradshaw said, with the BBC “losing a lot of its traditional supporters because of the inconsistent way in which they’ve handled this whole issue”.
He claimed Tory MPs “losing their marbles” over Lineker’s tweet have merely been seeking to detract from “their latest unworkable” asylum bill, adding: “It’s completely blown up in their face.
“And it’s the Tory government and the BBC that are taking the flak, not Gary Lineker. The Tories believe the culture wars are the only thing they’ve got left, and they did exactly the same in the run-up to 1997. It didn’t work for them then, it’s not going to work for them now.
“It just adds to the sense that Britain is broken and this government just lurches from one crisis to the next.”
His comments follow those of Match of the Day presenter Ian Wright, who said on his podcast on Friday that the row was “the perfect distraction” for the government – as he warned that he will quit Match of the Day if Lineker is sacked.
With commentators, pundits and presenters boycotting the BBC, the Professional Players Association (PFA) also confirmed on Saturday that Premier League players will not speak to the programme in a show of support for Lineker.
However, Thatcher-era minister and former BBC football presenter David Mellor accused Lineker of “showing contempt” for the government and director general Tim Davie – to whom he had thrown “the gauntlet down”.
Mr Mellor, who served four times as the minister with responsibility for broadcasting, said: “No one is bigger than the game, and Gary thought he was. And this could be an extensive error for Gary.”
While Lineker, as a freelance sports presenter, is not bound by the same strict impartiality rules as BBC staff journalists, Mr Mellor suggested this was an “intellectually insubstantial” point.
With support among some Tory MPs for scrapping the licence fee amid an ongoing review, Mr Mellor said: “What Gary runs the risk of doing is so humiliating Tim Davie that the BBC lose the licence fee and that is a silly thing.”
The BBC apologised for its limited sports programming on Saturday and insisted that it was “working hard to resolve the situation and hope to do so soon”.
In a previous statement, the BBC said it had been “in extensive discussions with Gary and his team in recent days”, adding: “We have said that we consider his recent social media activity to be a breach of our guidelines.”
They continued: “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.”