An unprecedented Match of the Day without presenters, pundits or commentators was watched by 500,000 more people last night than the previous week.
An average 2.6M viewers tuned in for the somewhat-bizarre 20 minute-long highlights show that comes with the BBC mired in one of its biggest crises of the past generation. Match of the Day, which airs for most of the year, tends to average around 2M viewers. Last night’s show hit its highest audience for four months.
A peak audience of almost 3M and share of nearly a quarter (23.5%) of people watching TV at the time tuned in for last night’s Match of the Day, which aired without presenters, pundits or commentators after host Gary Lineker was stood down by the BBC due to a breach of impartiality rules.
His fellow pundits refused to join him in solidarity following the controversy surrouding a tweet comparing the government’s language around asylum policy to 1930s Germany, and multiple other BBC sports pundits and commentators refused to partake in programing yesterday.
Much of today’s programing is also expected to be disrupted and Match of the Day 2 will air without presenters.
BBC Director General Tim Davie last night apologized for the disruption to viewers but said he won’t resign. He is desperately battling to resolve the crisis.
The BBC announced the decision to pull Lineker back from the popular highlights show on Friday afternoon after “extensive discussions,” during which the sports presenter was told that his tweet comparing the language around UK government asylum policy to Nazi Germany was unacceptable.
In response, a series of pundits and commentators – starting with Match of the Day pundits Ian Wright and Alan Shearer – stood down in solidarity with Lineker, and other presenters said they wouldn’t be appearing. In the much-shared tweet, Lineker railed at what he described as a “beyond awful” British government policy to stop small boats carrying asylum seekers from arriving on British shores.
He added in a later tweet: “We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries. 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.”
Lineker’s suspension has prompted criticism of the BBC from across the political spectrum. On Friday, the opposition Labour party said the BBC’s decision was “cowardly” and an “assault on free speech in the face of political pressure.”
Broadcaster Piers Morgan said in a tweet that Lineker’s suspension was “pathetically spineless.”
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak jumped into the debate Saturday and said he hoped the dispute could be “resolved in a timely manner.”
“Gary Lineker was a great footballer and is a talented presenter,” Sunak said. “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.”
The scandal comes fresh off the back of a tricky few weeks for BBC Chair Richard Sharp, during which time his role in facilitating a loan for former Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been placed under the microscope. Some analysts have suggested Sharp’s resignation would be a fair trade-off to see Lineker, who is the BBC’s highest-paid presenter at £1.35M ($1.62M) per year, welcomed back into the fold
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