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BBC DG Thompson dismisses reports that Beeb softening news

MUMBAI: In an email to the staff of UK pubcaster BBC DG Mark Thompson has said reports that the corporation's journalists are being muzzled to win government favour are utterly false.

He said, "There are reports in The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Daily Mail following up on an article by John Kampfner in the New Statesman which are so utterly false and misleading that I really can't let them stand uncorrected. Using the recent row about John Humphrys as its 'evidence', the pieces claim that the BBC is muzzling its journalism in an effort to keep government ministers happy. That is completely false and, indeed, utter nonsense.

"There has not been a single example of me, Mark Byford, any of the other senior editors of the BBC, the BBC chairman or anyone else inside the BBC trying to censor or soften anything. On the contrary, we all emphasise the need for the BBC's journalism to be robust, courageous and right. I can't relate the claim of a 'loss of nerve' with the reality of the way we're reporting the news at all."

Thompson gave the recent example of British Prime Minister Tony Blair making it very clear that he was unhappy with some of our coverage of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. "He's every right to think whatever he wants about BBC journalism. If I'd thought the criticism was warranted I would have said so. In fact, I've defended our coverage to the hilt – I thought it was outstanding."

The newspaper reports came after a New Statesman article by editor John Kampfner, a former BBC journalist, alleged that BBC chairman Michael Grade had wanted to make an example of Humphrys to placate Downing Street. Kampfner claimed that Grade and Thompson only changed their minds about sacking Humphrys when newspapers supported the BBC Radio 4 Today presenter.

In his e-mail Thompson said the claim was "a straightforward lie" as he and the chairman had only discussed launching an inquiry into Humphrys' speech. "The only executive the Chairman spoke to was me. He did not order me to 'sack' or in any other way discipline or admonish John Humphrys. Like me, at this point he had no idea whether the story in the press was true or what its context was. He phoned me to say he intended to put out a short statement saying that he would be asking me to report back to him and the other Governors on the story in due course. I told him that I would be asking Mark Byford, as our Head of Journalism, to look into the whole matter and in particular to hear John Humphrys' own account of what had happened.

"The New Statesman claims that 'instructions' have been issued from the top of the BBC to 'do anything to win back the favour of ministers and do nothing to offend'. Untrue – and preposterous. I'd love to see such instructions. Does anyone seriously imagine that I or anyone else could as much as hint at this kind of political bias without the British public finding out in about three milliseconds?

"And they're not instructions I would ever want to issue anyway. I am as fiercely committed to our editorial independence as any other BBC journalist. So, too, is Mark Byford, whom I've known and trusted for years. So too Helen and all the other members of her senior editorial team. Now there are many other untruths and distortions in the piece, but you get the point. The 'facts' in the piece were not checked with us (if they had been checked, the piece wouldn't have appeared), nor were we given a chance to respond to it.

"Bizarrely, I saw the piece's author, John Kampfner, at the party at the Labour conference he refers to in his article. He told me then that he thought we'd played 'a complete blinder on Humphrys'. How he squares that remark with his subsequent article I simply don't know. The original Humphrys story felt like a malicious attempt to undermine the BBC's journalism from one direction. This New Statesman piece feels like an equally malicious attempt to undermine it from a different direction. "

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