A defiant Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker has hit back at his critics and thanked his supporters after reports the BBC will have a “frank conversation” with him following comments he made on social media about the government’s immigration plans in which he appeared to compare Home Office policy to Nazi Germany.
A number of Conservative MPs have expressed anger after Lineker criticised the policy and the language used to introduce plans for the illegal migration bill.
Lineker’s response to a video message by the home secretary, Suella Braverman, about stopping people crossing the Channel in small boats was: “Good heavens, this is beyond awful.”
When challenged by someone on Twitter, the presenter defended his comments, saying: “There is no huge influx. 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, and I’m out of order?”
A BBC source told the PA news agency that the corporation is taking the matter “seriously” and expects to have a “frank conversation” with Lineker.
No 10 entered into the row on Wednesday, with the prime minister’s press secretary telling reporters the remark was “not acceptable”.
She added: “It’s obviously disappointing to see someone whose salary is funded by hard-working British [licence fee] payers using that kind of rhetoric and seemingly dismissing their legitimate concerns that they have about small boats crossings and illegal migration. But beyond that, it’s up to the BBC, who I think have said today that they’ll be having a conversation with Gary Lineker, and it’s not for me to comment further.”
In response to the ensuing criticism, Lineker tweeted: “Great to see the freedom of speech champions out in force this morning demanding silence from those with whom they disagree.”
He added: “I have never known such love and support in my life than I’m getting this morning (England World Cup goals aside, possibly). I want to thank each and every one of you. It means a lot. I’ll continue to try and speak up for those poor souls that have no voice. Cheers all.”
Among those supporting Lineker were the Labour peer and former MP for Battersea, Lord Dubs, who tweeted: “I applaud @GaryLineker for his compassion and support for vulnerable people, particularly refugees. Thank you, Gary.”
Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former press secretary, said Lineker was “pointing out the kind of facts the BBC should be pointing out relentlessly about the scale of a problem being exploited for populist polarising reasons”.
The former Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis tweeted: “Curious that @GaryLineker was free to raise questions about Qatar’s human rights record – with the blessing of the BBC – over the World Cup , but cannot raise questions of human rights in this country if it involves criticism of government policy …”
The bill itself has been heavily criticised, including by the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, which said it was “profoundly concerned” and that the bill in its current form “compels the home secretary to deny access to the UK asylum system to those who arrive irregularly”.
It said the legislation, if passed, “would amount to an asylum ban – extinguishing the right to seek refugee protection in the UK for those who arrive irregularly, no matter how genuine and compelling their claim may be, and with no consideration of their individual circumstances”.
The effect would be “to deny protection to many asylum seekers in need of safety and protection, and even deny them the opportunity to put forward their case”. This would be a clear breach of the refugee convention, it added.
However, Tory politicians widely condemned Lineker’s latest comments and urged the BBC to act.
The immigration minister Robert Jenrick told Times Radio: “My children are the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and I think those sorts of words should not be thrown around lightly. Gary Lineker is paid for by the British taxpayer and it is disappointing that he is so far out of step with the British public.
“They see people dying, literally, in the English Channel at the behest of some of the most evil criminal gangs we see in the world today, and they want the government to take action. That’s exactly what we intend to do.”
The deputy chair of the Conservative party, Lee Anderson, wrote on Facebook: “This is just another example of how out of touch these overpaid stars are with the voting public. Instead of lecturing, Mr Lineker should stick to reading out the football scores and flogging crisps.”
Braverman told ITV’s Good Morning Britain she was “very disappointed” by his comments. She added: “Equating our measures – which are lawful, necessary and fundamentally compassionate – to 1930s Germany is irresponsible and I disagree with that characterisation.”
Asked if Lineker should resign or be sacked, she said: “That’s a matter for the BBC and they will resolve that.”
A BBC spokesperson told the Daily Telegraph: “The BBC has social media guidance, which is published. Individuals who work for us are aware of their responsibilities relating to social media. We have appropriate internal processes in place if required.”
Last year Tim Davie, the BBC director general, described cracking down on Lineker’s politicised tweeting as a “work in progress”.
He told MPs on the digital, culture, media and sport committee that a distinction needed to be drawn between those working in news and current affairs, and those such as Lineker who worked in other areas.
He said: “I’ve talked to Gary and he has sent thousands of tweets, and I think overall he is in a lot better state.”
Davie added: “Overall the conversation goes on … it is a work in progress in terms of where he draws the line. We have had a conversation and I think he understands the guidelines.”