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Gary Lineker’s suspension from the BBC for criticising the government’s migration policy has been likened to “Putin’s Russia” in a scathing attack by Labour.
Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell claimed ministers’ fingerprints were “all over” the decision to take the football presenter off air and accused the broadcaster of “capitulating to a Tory cancel campaign”.
Asking an urgent question in the Commons, Ms Powell said: “What does she (Culture minister Julia Lopez) think it looks like to the outside world that a much-loved sports presenter is taken off air for tweeting something the government doesn’t like?
“It sounds more like Putin’s Russia to me.”
The comparison was branded “disgraceful” by Ms Lopez and other Conservative MPs.
Former minister Andrew Percy told the Commons: “I hope that the shadow secretary of state will reflect on her comparison of this government to the Putin regime which, of course, is engaged in war crimes and the murder of men, women, and children in Ukraine. That was beneath her.”
Ms Lopez replied: “I also think it was distasteful to compare the government’s actions or otherwise to the Putin regime, I think it is a disgraceful comparison to make, and I think it is way off the mark.”
Ms Lopez said the government has “consistently made clear” it is for the BBC to resolve the issue with Lineker and said she refused to give her view of the case.
She added: “At no time has any of us as ministers sought to influence the BBC’s decision in this case in any way. The events of the last week are rightly a matter for the corporation.”
The row was sparked after Lineker was taken off air for a tweet comparing the language used to launch a new government asylum seeker policy to that of 1930s Germany.
The move to suspend the presenter triggered pundits, presenters and reporters – including Ian Wright – to join a walkout in solidarity with him over the weekend as others criticised the broadcaster for its response.
Former BBC journalist Jon Sopel drew a comparison with the corporation’s chairman Richard Sharp, who has been involved in a cronyism row over accusations he helped Boris Johnson secure an £800,000 loan facility.
The BBC later apologised and reinstated Lineker, while director general Tim Davie announced a review of social media guidelines at the broadcaster.
Several Tory MPs have continued to express anger at Lineker’s remarks but Ms Lopez said it is “incredibly important” the BBC is left to conduct its social media review “in a way that allows it to bring clarity, particularly in relation to the question of freelancers versus people who are paid employees”.
She added: “I think it’s difficult not to ignore the fact that as the highest-paid employee, Mr Lineker will be understandably held to account for his views by the licence fee payer as an issue that’s relevant to whether the BBC is impartial.”
Lineker row ‘goes straight to heart of BBC’s reputation’
Earlier, the head of Ofcom told MPs that it had been a “really difficult episode for the BBC” but that she hopes “they can find their way through it”.
Dame Melanie Dawes, the chief executive of the broadcasting regulator, said that “it hasn’t been a great weekend for BBC sports fans” after the broadcaster was forced to pull much of its sports coverage amid the row with Lineker.
Appearing before the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee, she added: “I think we’re all glad to see that hopefully the BBC is moving beyond this episode.”
She said: “An episode like this goes straight to the heart of that wider reputation on their news and current affairs coverage.
“The question for the BBC on their social media guidelines is a question for their board, not something in which Ofcom has a role.
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“I think they need to look at those guidelines and see if they’re right in a world of increased use of social media, and look at what they ask in terms of their contributors as well as their staff.”
She said she thinks there needs to be “very strict rules for news presenters and that’s what the guidelines have”, adding that “beyond that questions of freedom of expression do become relevant” and BBC needs to “work out how to draw that line”.
On Monday, Lineker tweeted that he was “delighted we have navigated a way through this” and said he “cannot wait” to get back on the show.