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Gary Lineker will return to BBC after tweet criticizing new asylum policy

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The BBC had a very public fight over the weekend. It involved a hugely popular presenter, a tweet, his suspension. And it all led to a polarizing national debate on the BBC's impartiality and a vow from the broadcaster to review the current guidelines for how those working for the BBC can talk publicly about politics.

London-based journalist Willem Marx joins us now to explain what's been happening. Hi there.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: Hey.

SUMMERS: So, Willem, get us up to speed here. Who is this presenter, and what has been happening over the past week or so?

MARX: Well, Gary Lineker, when I was growing up, was one of England's greatest-ever soccer stars. He was a man who, in all his years of playing, never got into trouble with referees. And then after he finished playing, he started working as a broadcaster. Back in 1999, he took over the main hosting role of the country's most popular weekend soccer show, called "Match Of The Day." It broadcasts on the BBC's flagship network, BBC One, on Saturday evenings. Then in the middle of last week, he tweeted.

SUMMERS: OK - famous last words for many. So tell us, what did he write? And I understand that he ended up in trouble.

MARX: Yeah. So the government announced last week that people arriving in the U.K. on small boats from France would, in future, be liable to deportation and potentially barred from ever reentering the U.K. in the future. And Lineker wrote on Twitter that this was, quote, "awful" and that the language being used by government ministers and the supporters was similar to that used in 1930's Nazi-controlled Germany.

Some of those ministers, some of their supporters criticized him for expressing that opinion, particularly since the BBC prides itself as a broadcaster on its impartiality. He was taken off air over the weekend. A huge number of other BBC sports presenters then refused to work in solidarity with him. And then this morning, we learned that he'd be back on air, but the guidelines around the limits of what well-known BBC personalities like him can say would be reviewed.

SUMMERS: OK. So what is it, then, about the BBC's role in British public life that makes this issue so complicated?

MARX: Well, to be clear, the BBC's not directly funded by taxpayers. But it's a requirement in the U.K. that if you own a TV, you pay what's known as a license fee, and that's the money that pays for the BBC's operations. And over the past century since it was started, a key tenet has been for the British Broadcast Corporation, that it wouldn't take sides in politics, particularly when it comes to journalism. And that said, it's not a state broadcaster. It jealously guards its editorial independence. And it, at times, asks many of its staff, even those working outside journalism, to be judicious in the way they talk about politicians, politics and public policy. And so when people like Gary Lineker, with a huge public profile, tweet on issues like migration, it's seen as potentially undermining the corporation's perceived impartiality.

SUMMERS: And, Willem, has all of this put more of a spotlight on the way the government there is intending to act on its promises to toughen the U.K.'s immigration policies?

MARX: Yeah, without doubt. You know, much of the country agrees that the authorities need to tackle the way that tens of thousands of people are crossing a dangerous body of water from France to England each year. The current Conservative government has repeatedly said that a succession of its new policies over recent years would stop those people setting off from France. But the number of crossings has continued to rise, and that's led their political opponents, Labour, to say the current immigration system is essentially broken, which in turn has, in some ways, encouraged the government to double down. A lot of the more hardline policies like potentially deporting asylum claimants to Rwanda in Africa - they've yet to actually take effect. But Lineker and his tweets are kind of representative of the fact that many British citizens don't want to be associated with this Conservative government's approach.

SUMMERS: Willem Marx reporting. Thank you so much.

MARX: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SAVANNAH BLEU AND THE AUDIBLES SONG, "NOT THE SAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Willem Marx