The BBC has apologised and admitted “a degree of bias” to a journalist who featured on Radio 4’s Today programme looking at how the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales dealt with allegations of child sex abuse against one of his clergy.
Clifford Longley complained to the BBC governors after appearing on the programme last November to discuss how Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor had responded to accusations of child abuse within the Catholic Church.
Longley’s complaint centred on the perception that fellow contributor Michele Elliot, of the children’s anti-bullying charity Kidscape, was allowed to make certain statements about the cardinal and the Catholic Church without being challenged.
“For instance, Ms Elliot called for the cardinal to ‘resign’, but was not pressed to defend her view in the light of my objections, or indeed the facts,” Longley told the Catholic Herald.
“She persisted in saying the cardinal had broken the Nolan guidelines [which advocate that any priest accused of abuse is withdrawn from his parish pending a full risk assessment], whereas the only evidence we heard was to the contrary.”
Counter arguments made by Longley on the programme were subsequently cut from the broadcast, leading to the final admission by the BBC to “a slight degree of bias”.
The BBC said: “It was nevertheless a fault in the discussion, and thus in the overall balance of the item as a whole, that Mr Longley was subjected to challenge in a way the other speaker was not.” In addition to the complaint featuring in the BBC’s publicly accessible complaints bulletin, Longley said he has received “a personal letter of apology” from the head of BBC complaints, Fraser Steel.
Steel told Longley: “In response to your point about the absence of challenge to Ms Elliot compared to the way you were questioned, I should perhaps make it clearer than I did in my last letter that having considered the overall impression to which this contributed, I thought the result was a degree of bias somewhat offset by the effectiveness of your own contribution.”
A BBC spokeswoman said it was corporation procedure to send a written apology for each upheld complaint.
“This is the first recognition by the BBC that Today’s pursuit of Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor has crossed the line of acceptable journalism at least once,” said Longley. “I am not one who thinks that the Today programme has no business engaging in campaigning journalism. But when it does so, it still has to be fair.”
The Radio 4 programme won reporter Angus Stickler a nomination for a Sony award.
By Wale Azeez