Rishi Sunak has tried to distance the government from the row consuming the BBC over its suspension of football presenter Gary Lineker for what it said was a breach of its political impartiality policy.
The prime minister called on the broadcaster to resolve the row quickly, intensifying pressure on Tim Davie, its director-general, who apologised to viewers for the upheaval and said he was trying to get Lineker back on air.
“Gary Lineker was a great footballer and is a talented presenter,” Sunak said in a statement issued at 6pm on Saturday which suggested he was starting to feel political heat on the issue.
“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.”
Sunak’s statement came after a day of chaos at the BBC which heavily disrupted its sports programming, including the flagship Match of the Day TV show, as Lineker’s colleagues walked out in support of the veteran presenter and former England player.
On Friday the BBC had asked Lineker to “step back” from Match of the Day while it thrashed out an agreement with him on his future activity on social media. The row was triggered when Lineker compared the government’s language on migration to that heard in Germany in the 1930s in remarks made on Twitter.
Davie told BBC News on Saturday that “success for me is getting Gary back on air”, adding he was prepared to review impartiality rules for freelance staff like Lineker. The director-general said he would “absolutely not” be resigning but admitted “this has been a tough time for the BBC”.
He said there had been no “pandering” to any political party amid accusations from Labour that BBC executives bowed to pressure from Downing Street and ministers over Lineker’s remarks.
Davie admitted it had been a “difficult day” for the corporation but said “we are working very hard to resolve the situation”.
Labour claimed Sunak was trying to duck responsibility for fuelling the row.
In recent days Suella Braverman, home secretary, and Lucy Frazer, culture secretary, have both criticised Lineker, while Tory MPs and rightwing newspapers, notably the Daily Mail, called for his suspension.
Lucy Powell, shadow culture secretary, said: “It’s just depressing the BBC gave in to this Tory bullying, but the prime minister’s crocodile tears now he can see the Tories have got this so badly wrong fool nobody.”
The row broke out as Davie seeks to buttress the corporation’s impartiality, which he said was his key ambition when he took over in September 2020. But the corporation’s leadership faces mounting pressure over its perceived pro-government bias.
As a sports presenter, Lineker is already granted more leeway than BBC journalists in expressing his opinions publicly. Some critics of the corporation have suggested the rules should be loosened further.