BBC to give protesters equal airtime

THE BBC has ordered staff to reflect “significant opposition to the conflict” in coverage of a war in Iraq. Guidelines sent to journalists by Stephen Whittle, the corporation’s controller of editorial policy, say that views challenging the whole basis of military action must be heard even when British troops are in action.

The orders come amid ministerial concern that an anti-war bias in the BBC is undermining efforts to explain government policy. Mr Whittle told staff: “We must reflect significant opposition in the UK (and elsewhere) to the military conflict and allow the arguments to be heard and tested. Those who speak and perhaps demonstrate against war are to be reported as part of the national and international reality.”

He also gave a warning against “alarmist” reports about weapons of mass destruction. Because the phrase evokes “special horror”, he told staff: “If we say they have been used, we should be absolutely certain of the fact. If their use is rumoured only, our reports must not be alarmist or excited. The possibility of their use is to be discussed calmly.”

BBC journalists have been told they cannot refer to British forces as “our” troops. The guidelines say: “For the sake of clarity, it will usually be appropriate to say ‘British troops’, especially as so many BBC reports are broadcast globally.”

Footage of “smart” bombs provided by the military will be clearly labelled and treated with caution. Mr Whittle told staff: “It may also be wise to provide commentary to ensure audiences understand that such footage has been selected for a purpose. It will not normally be possible to gauge the overall effectiveness of a military campaign from such material alone.” He is also insisting that information from government briefings must be tested as to its reliability. When asked to withhold information over matters of taste, “these are for us to decide”.

John Reid, the Labour Party chairman, said last night: “If the BBC is issuing guidelines in the interests of democracy, it should make clear that their correspondents in Iraq are subject to reporting restrictions from the ultimate spin machine — Saddam Hussein’s fascist regime. Their journalists are subject to Iraqi Ministry of Information restrictions and operate a degree of ‘self-censorship’ to avoid deportation.”

John Whittingdale, the Tory culture spokesman, said: “People inside the BBC who are opposed to the conflict are imposing their views on the corporation. Public opinion may yet swing behind action. The BBC is our national broadcaster and it must make clear why we are asking British forces to risk their lives. A 50-50 balance is not good enough. The BBC should reflect that both the Government and Opposition support this course of action.” Toning down horrific descriptions of weapons of mass destruction was an attempt to undermine the whole basis of the proposed action.

Adrian Van-Klaveren, BBC head of newsgathering, said: “We will reflect all shades of opinion in what may be a divided nation. Our duty is to be objective.”

BBC executives are steeling themselves for accusations of bias. During the Kosovo war, Labour spokesmen branded it “the Belgrade Broadcasting Corporation”.