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BBC Pulls Soccer Host After Migration Comments

FILE - TV pundit and former England captain Gary Lineker at Wembley Stadium, London, April 16, 2022. (Action Images via Reuters)
FILE - TV pundit and former England captain Gary Lineker at Wembley Stadium, London, April 16, 2022. (Action Images via Reuters)

Former England soccer captain Gary Lineker has been taken off the air by the BBC after his comments on Britain's migration policy sparked a furious spat between the government and the corporation's highest-paid presenter.

Lineker was told there has to be an agreement on his use of social media before he can return, the BBC said on Friday.

BBC Director General Tim Davie said it had taken "proportionate action."

The dispute overshadowed a migration deal struck between British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and French President Emmanuel Macron, with the BBC accused of bowing to political pressure.

On Tuesday, Britain announced details of a new law stating that migrants arriving in small boats across the English Channel would be prevented from claiming asylum and deported either back to their homeland or to so-called safe third countries.

It drew criticism from opposition parties, charities and the United Nations' refugee agency for its impact on refugees.

Lineker, who has previously hosted refugees in his home, retweeted a post featuring a video of Interior Minister Suella Braverman talking about the law, with the comment "Good heavens, this is beyond awful."

Challenged by a respondent, he said: "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, and I'm out of order?"

Lineker faced a backlash to his comments, which were criticized by Sunak's spokeswoman as "not acceptable," but said he would "continue to try and speak up for those poor souls that have no voice."

The BBC said after talks with Lineker and his team that it had decided he would step back from presenting its flagship "Match of the Day (MOTD)" soccer highlights program "until we've got an agreed and clear position on his use of social media."

After four of the show's regular pundits, former England players Ian Wright, Alan Shearer, Jermaine Jenas and Micah Richards, said they did not wish to appear on the program without Lineker, the BBC said Saturday's edition would "focus on match action without studio presentation or punditry."

"Gary Lineker off air is an assault on free speech in the face of political pressure," the opposition Labour Party said, calling for the BBC to rethink its decision.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called the BBC's move "indefensible."

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport said: "Individual cases are a matter for the BBC."

Lineker has hosted "MOTD" for more than 20 years, and the charismatic 62-year-old has never been afraid to voice his opinions about political issues.

But the BBC said it considered his recent social media activity to be a breach of its guidelines.

"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," it added.

The BBC, funded by what is in effect a $192 (159 pounds) annual "license fee" tax on all television-watching households, has a central presence in British cultural life. It says it is committed to being politically impartial.

Last year the BBC's complaints unit ruled Lineker had failed to meet editorial standards on impartiality when he sent a tweet asking whether the governing Conservative Party would give back money from Russian donors.

BBC Chair Richard Sharp is under pressure for failing to declare his involvement in facilitating a loan for former Prime Minister Boris Johnson shortly before he was appointed to the role. His appointment, made on the recommendation of the government, is now being reviewed by Britain's public appointments watchdog.

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