BBC accused of hyping Rowan Williams' Catholic comments

Last week Rowan Williams’ comments about the Catholic Church in Ireland on the Andrew Marr “Start the Week” show were widely publicised by the BBC as a significant news story before it was aired on Easter Monday, leading to claims that BBC was guilty of hype and taking the comments out of context.

Williams said that the Catholic church in Ireland was “in danger of losing all credibility”, although he was referring to comments made by a friend of his.

A number of listeners called in to register their complaints about the way the BBC dealt with the story which were answered on Radio 4’s Feedback by the deputy head of the BBC’s newsroom Stephen Mitchell.

He explained that the BBC only put the story out after it first appeared in The Times.

He said: “The process was that, late on the Friday night, there was a newswire came out that was reporting on the story, and that newswire appears to come out directly from the front page of the Times, the Saturday Times… We decided to check it out and at 11.15 on that night Robert Piggott our religious affairs correspondant looked into the story and got a hold of the tape of the relevant section of the program, listened to it and we had a discussion about whether this was a news story which deserved to be run.”

The Archbishop had already apologised for his comments on the Saturday, before the Start the Week program had been broadcast, leading to even more publicity for the show.

Rowan WIlliams’ said on BBC Radio 2 on the Saturday: “I didn’t honestly think that I was saying anything that had not been said by others about the Irish Church, including leaders of the Irish Church. I wasn’t intending to criticise or condemn, but to point out a really tragic situation and a huge challenge that faces the Irish church at the moment, which many of them are rising to with great courage, and I feel very sorry that anything I’ve said should be taken as undermining that, that was anything but my intention, especially at a time like this.”

When Mitchell was questioned on whether there was a danger in running news stories ahead of programmes being transmitted; he responded saying: “I think that there can be a danger in running the news clip ahead of what’s happened, the key issue is: are we actually across that and are we actually behaving in a responsible and impartial manner? Having spoken to the people who reported it and having spoken to Robert Piggott I’m confident that they basically looked at the story and were careful to make sure that everybody understood the proper context of what was said.”
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