BBC crisis grows as players, presenters back Lineker

The BBC has had to scrap much of its weekend sports programming as it scrambles to stem an escalating crisis over its suspension of soccer host Gary Lineker.

As a growing number of Premier League players and BBC presenters rallied to Lineker's support and refused to appear on the airwaves on Saturday, Britain's national broadcaster faced allegations of political bias and suppressing free speech, as well as praise from some Conservative politicians.

Lineker was suspended for comments criticising the British government's new asylum policy.

The broadcaster said it would air only "limited sport programming" this weekend after hosts of many of its popular sports shows declined to appear, in solidarity with Lineker.

The former England captain was suspended from popular soccer highlights show Match of the Day over a Twitter post that compared lawmakers' language about migrants to that used in Nazi Germany.

Instead of blanket coverage on Saturday of the most popular league in the world, the BBC had no preview shows on radio or TV and no early evening summary of the final scores of Premier League games.

Lunchtime TV program Football Focus was replaced with a rerun episode of antiques show Bargain Hunt, while early evening Final Score was swapped for The Repair Shop.

Match of the Day - the late-night program that has been a British institution for 60 years - was reduced from the usual hour and a half of highlights and analysis to a 20-minute compilation of clips from the day's games.

There will not be any post-match player interviews, either. The Professional Footballers' Association said some players wanted to boycott the show, and as a result "players involved in today's games will not be asked to participate in interviews with Match of The Day."

The BBC said it was "sorry for these changes which we recognise will be disappointing for BBC sport fans. We are working hard to resolve the situation and hope to do so soon."

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak even weighed in, urging Lineker and the BBC to settle their disagreement.

"Gary Lineker was a great footballer and is a talented presenter. 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," he said.

Since retiring from a glittering playing career 62-year-old Lineker has become one of the UK's most influential media figures and the BBC's best-paid star, earning $A2.47 million last year.

An enthusiastic social media user with 8.7 million Twitter followers, Lineker has long irked right-of-centre politicians and activists with his liberal views, including criticism of Britain's decision to leave the European Union.

The latest controversy began with a tweet on Tuesday from Lineker's account describing the government's plan to detain and deport migrants arriving by boat as "an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s."

The Conservative government called Lineker's Nazi comparison offensive and unacceptable, and some lawmakers said he should be fired.

In his statement, Sunak doubled down on the government's plan to deter people from making dangerous journeys across the English Channel in small boats, saying it was the only way to "break this cycle of misery once and for all."

On Friday, the BBC said Lineker would "step back" from Match of the Day until it had "an agreed and clear position on his use of social media."

Lineker has yet to comment publicly, and on Saturday went to his hometown of Leicester to watch Leicester City play Chelsea in the Premier League. He was greeted with cheers from bystanders.

Former BBC Director General Greg Dyke said the network "undermined its own credibility" by appearing to bow to government pressure.

Keir Starmer, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said the BBC was "caving in" to political pressure from Conservative lawmakers.