What began as a tweet by a popular British football commentator comparing the language of the government’s new immigration plan to that of 1930s Germany has turned a major sports program — once a haven for national unity free of politics—and erupted into a national discussion on free speech.

At the center of the uproar is Gary Lineker, a former English soccer captain turned television personality who regularly appears in commercials for one of the UK’s biggest potato chip brands. Last week, he responded to Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s proposal to address what she called Britain’s «overwhelmed» asylum system.

The bill has been criticized by human rights groups and criticized by the United Nations Human Rights Council, which said it was a «clear violation of the Refugee Convention» and would effectively result in an «asylum ban». .

The Minister of the Interior, Suella Braverman.Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP File

Lineker rated the proposal “beyond horrible,” before redoubling his efforts when questioned, calling it «an immeasurably cruel policy aimed at the most vulnerable people in language not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 1930s.»

Suddenly, the presenter, known for his jovial humor and ironic comments, found himself the subject of complaints from various members of the government and targets of the right-wing press. Braverman told the BBC that his comment «lessens the unspeakable tragedy» of the Holocaust. (Lineker did not mention the Holocaust in his public comments.)

Lineker has faced criticism in the past for his use of social media, as he tweeted about Brexit, government policy and donations to the ruling Conservative Party of Russian oligarchs. But his latest intervention struck a chord with the government. According to a recent poll by British pollster YouGov, 73% of respondents thought she was mishandling immigration issues.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at Downing Street in London on March 7, 2023.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Downing Street last week.Leon Neal / AFP – Getty Images

Even Prime Minister Rishi Sunak commented on Lineker’s Twitter response to Braverman’s video announcement, saying the new bill “would mean if you come here illegally you won’t be able to stay. You will be detained and transferred to your country, if it is safe, or to a safe third country, such as Rwanda.”

As pressure mounted, the BBC announced on Friday that Lineker was «to step back from presenting his flagship football show ‘Match of the Day’ until we have a clear and agreed position on his use of social media.» «. The national broadcaster added that he considered «his recent activity on social media to be a violation of our guidelines.»

The move sparked outrage on social media and the hashtags #I’mWithGary and #BoycottBBC began trending on Twitter. Separately, a petition to reinstate Lineker, the top scorer at the 1986 World Cup, had garnered nearly 200,000 signatures as of early Sunday morning.

Migrants, picked up at sea trying to cross the English Channel, are helped ashore from a Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboat, at Dungeness, on England's south-east coast, on December 9, 2022.
Migrants picked up at sea are helped ashore by a Royal National Lifeboat Institution ship off England’s south-east coast in December. Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images file

And after Lineker’s touchline, the commentators for «Match of the Day», which holds the world record for the longest run. soccer show: He announced that he was withdrawing from the show, which aired Saturday night without studio hosts or pundits. Soccer players and managers also refused to do interviews for the show, and the normal 80-minute run time was cut to 20 minutes.

Throughout Saturday, several other TV and radio hosts stopped hosting soccer and other sports shows, forcing the station to air reruns.

On Sunday, the BBC said it would broadcast a women’s soccer matchwithout its own commentators, and that “Match of the Day 2”, which Lineker does not present, would be broadcast in a similar format to its sister show.

NBC News reached out to Lineker for comment, but he did not respond to reporters when asked about the matter on Sunday.

Anti-immigration protesters hold a banner outside the Holiday Inn hotel housing refugees in Rotherham, England, on February 18, 2023.
Anti-immigration protesters outside a Holiday Inn hotel hosting refugees in Rotherham, England, last month.Andy Barton / SOPA Images/Sipa USA via AP File

While the government has said that decisions involving Lineker are up to the BBC, many in the know doubted this was entirely true.

The government «put pressure on the BBC to take a very particular line,» Gholam Khiabany, professor of politics and media at Goldsmiths, University of London, told NBC News on Saturday. He had «created a crisis» for the station by pressuring the organization to censor Lineker and later claimed that the matter was entirely «up to the BBC».

The government had tried a similar tactic when it pressured the Freedom From Torture charity to remove a video it had posted on Twitter of a Holocaust survivor challenging Braverman over his language on immigration. Freedom From Torture refused to remove it, but Khiabany said the government had done the same with the BBC «and to some extent they have succeeded.»

Although technically independent from the state, the BBC is funded by an annual tax that the government collects from everyone who owns a television or radio. Because the broadcaster’s revenue was «determined by the government of the day», «it was always a sword that is over the head of the BBC», Khiabany said.

A Manchester City fan holds a banner reading "Gary Lineker for Prime Minister" before the English Premier League soccer match between Crystal Palace and Manchester City in London on March 11, 2023.
A Manchester City fan holds a banner reading ‘Gary Lineker for Prime Minister’ before the English Premier League soccer match between Crystal Palace and Manchester City in London on Saturday.Ben Stansall/AFP – Getty Images

The debate has also raised questions about the future of other BBC figures, many of whom have expressed outspoken views or been active in politics. Chief among these is BBC Chairman Richard Sharp, who has donated money to the ruling Conservative Party and is currently the subject of an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into the role he may have played in facilitating a loan worth hundreds of dollars. thousands of dollars to former Prime Minister Boris. Johnson. He has denied any involvement in the loan process.

While Lineker is the BBC’s highest-paid presenter, he is not a permanent member of staff. As a freelance, he hosts shows on other stations, and the decision to remove him from “Match of the Day” prompted complaints of double standards from several commentators who pointed out that other personalities had previously expressed uncensored right-wing views.

Internally, the BBC faces more pressing problems.

Past and present staff have criticized the BBC’s handling of the issue, including Greg Dyke, its former director general, who told BBC Radio 4 that the station had «undermined its own credibility by doing this because it seems, the perception that exists, that the BBC has yielded to pressure from the government”.

People attend a vigil outside Downing Street to remember the four people who drowned in the English Channel the day before and demand safe passage for refugees on December 15, 2022 in London.
People attend a December vigil in London to remember the four people who drowned in the English Channel.Guy Smallman File / Getty Images

Roger Mosey, former director of BBC TV News, also tweeted on Saturday that it appeared the broadcaster had «caved in to one side of the culture war», something he said was intensified by the presence of Sharp, the chairman, who said «I should go.»

“It damages the credibility of the BBC,” Mosey wrote, adding that “Lineker should ideally stick to clear and agreed guidelines.”

Acknowledging that “not everyone will always agree” with his new asylum policy, Prime Minister Sunak appeared to distance himself from the furor on Saturday, saying in a statement that it was a BBC matter, “not the government’s”.

«Whatever happens, I think the BBC will come out of this much weaker than it was,» Khiabany said, adding that the corporation had «significantly failed at the notion of independence in journalism.»