"Match of the Day" is the name of Great Britain's most important football show. Hardly anyone would have thought that it could become a political issue about refugee policy and freedom of the press within hours. But that is exactly what happened.
On Saturday, the program, normally presented by England's ex-star striker Gary Lineker, was supposed to do without a moderator and experts because the 62-year-old had criticized the government on Twitter. The public service BBC saw its independence in danger and had suspended him. The result: Experts, TV employees and footballers showed solidarity and plunged the broadcaster into a crisis.
Gary Lineker didn't want to apologize
But first things first: It all started with a tweet by Lineker on Tuesday, in which he compared the Conservative government's choice of words on refugees with Nazi rhetoric from the 1930s.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Interior Minister Suella Braverman had previously presented a bill that would deny people who entered Germany irregularly the right to seek asylum. Criticism of this came not only from the opposition, but also from the UN refugee organization UNHCR, which accused Great Britain of breaching international obligations.
Right winger Braverman had previously spoken of an "invasion" by boat people. And that despite the fact that Great Britain only takes in a small number of refugees compared to Germany.
Braverman accused Lineker of trivializing the Holocaust. Several conservative MPs called for consequences for the ex-footballer. But Lineker didn't want to apologize. The BBC then suspended its highest-paid presenter on Friday.
Wave of solidarity for Lineker
What the institution probably didn't expect: His colleagues on "Match of the Day", the ex-soccer stars Ian Wright and Alan Shearer, announced that they would not be on the show either. Several BBC colleagues joined. The footballers' union PFA backed Premier League players who refused to give interviews to the show. Other sports programs on radio and TV also had to be cancelled.
Lineker is a football icon like Jürgen Klinsmann or Rudi Völler in Germany. The 62-year-old ex-striker came up with the sentence that is still often quoted today: "Football is a simple game. 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and in the end the Germans win". He has been the face of "Match of the Day" for more than 20 years.
Lineker also has 8.8 million followers on Twitter and has a history of sharing political views that have clashed with the Conservative government in London. Above all, the moderator who worked independently for the BBC openly spoke out against Brexit and thus made powerful enemies with the Tories.
The BBC's credibility is at stake
The BBC has been under pressure from Brexit supporters and right-wing populists in the conservative Tory party for years. According to their account, the public broadcaster is riddled with left-leaning journalists who represent an urban elite. Actions like the Lineker case seem like anticipatory obedience on the part of the BBC to avoid such criticism.
It's just the latest in a long line of rows that have seen top journalists turn their backs on the BBC. In addition, the government repeatedly threatened to abolish broadcasting contributions. Freezing contributions has already led to painful savings.
Media experts see the Tories' constant criticism of the BBC as an attempt to break the independence of public service broadcasting. Former BBC journalist Emily Maitlis vented her frustration at a lecture last year: "We are seeing politicians taking a direction that is deeply and clearly damaging to our basic democratic government," Maitlis said. If one side constantly tells the untruth, you have to call it by its name, she demanded.
In the current dispute over Lineker's suspension, former BBC Director General Greg Dyke also gave the institution a bad report. "The real problem today is that the BBC has undermined its own credibility by doing this. Because from the outside it looks like it has caved in to government pressure," Dyke told BBC 4 radio.
According to some critics, "Auntie," as the BBC is sometimes affectionately known, is already in the grip of government sympathizers. For example, there were no repercussions when it was revealed that current BBC chairman Richard Sharp had provided a personal loan to Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he was hired - without stating that it was a conflict of interest.