Labour has been criticised after claiming Gary Lineker being taken off air for tweeting something “the Government doesn’t like” sounds like “Putin’s Russia”.
Shadow culture secretary Lucy Powell’s remarks were branded “distasteful” by culture minister Julia Lopez, who also labelled it a “disgraceful comparison” given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions.
The Commons spat came amid wider disagreements among MPs over Lineker’s case, with criticism aimed at the Match Of The Day presenter, the BBC and the Government.
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.
He was later reinstated, and the BBC apologised and committed to review its social media guidelines.
Ms Powell, asking an urgent questions, said: “What does (Ms 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.
“Her Government has pursued a deliberate strategy of undermining the BBC to keep it over a barrel to get themselves more coverage.
“It was on full display overnight and I’m sure it will be on full display here today. Threaten the licence fee, cut its funding, undermine its credibility. All in pursuit in keeping their foot on the BBC’s throat.
“This week’s whole sorry saga has raised serious questions about the Government’s role in upholding BBC impartiality. They’ve got their fingerprints all over it.”
But Conservative former minister Andrew Percy said: “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.”
Mr Percy, a vice-chair of the antisemitism all-party parliamentary group, also called on Lineker to apologise for his tweet and described it as “disgusting”.
He added: “As somebody who grew up surrounded by people who had their lives turned on their head by the Nazi regime in Germany, I hope that the minister will comment on his references to 1930s Germany.”
Ms Lopez, in her reply, said: “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.”
Conservative former minister Damian Green, acting chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said the Lineker affair had been “embarrassingly terrible for the BBC” as he insisted it was down to BBC managers to enforce impartiality.
He added: “In return, presenters whose reputations and bank balances are enhanced by regular appearances on popular BBC shows also owe a reciprocal responsibility to the BBC, which may include some self-restraint in what they say and do in public.”
Conservative former minister Sir John Hayes, meanwhile, asked: “Mindful that the minister doesn’t want to comment on self-indulgent, out of touch, insensitive, avaricious, smug and arrogant football pundits, and in mind too of the important role the BBC has as a national institution made special by both its charter and the mode of its funding, will she affirm that impartiality is critical to its continuing role?”
A Labour MP could be heard to shout “speak for yourself” as Sir John began his question.
Conservative MP Sir Bill Cash (Stone) suggested establishing an independent “adjudicating body for impartiality” to monitor the BBC.
Amid calls for Lineker to follow existing social media guidelines while the review is conducted, Ms Lopez said: “I think it’s 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.
“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.”