FINDING BY THE BBC GOVERNORS PROGRAMME COMPLAINTS COMMITTEE
Today programme, Radio 4, 12 October 2001 : appeal by Mr Stephen Hewitt
This complaint concerned an interview with the former MP, Mr Jonathan Aitken, about anti- Western tensions in Saudi Arabia, that some claimed threatened the stability of the country and the position of the Saudi Royal Family.
Mr Hewitt complained to the Programme Complaints Unit of breaches of the BBC's Producers' Guidelines on accuracy and impartiality on the basis that:
. Mr Aitken was treated as a reliable and authoritative source of information, despite his conviction for perjury;
. Mr Aitken was allowed to "smear" the previous speaker, Dr Saad al-Fagih, without Dr al- Fagih being given a right to reply;
. the introduction to Mr Aikten did not make clear Mr Aitken's financial and other connections with the Royal Family.
The terms of the introduction were:
"Someone in whose life the Saudi Royal Family has loomed large is the former Conservative Minister for Defence Procurement, Jonathan Aitken."
The Head of Programme Complaints (HPC) did not consider the first element of the complaint, maintaining that Mr Aitken's conviction for perjury is unconnected with his expertise on the subject of the interview.
The HPC did not uphold the two remaining elements on the grounds that the BBC's policy on the right-to-reply did not apply in this instance, and that the introduction to Mr Aitken's interview was factually accurate.
Mr Hewitt appealed to the Programme Complaints Committee.
The Committee's decision:
Committee members explored with Stephen Mitchell, Head of BBC Radio News, the points raised by Mr Hewitt.
The Committee discussed the choice of Mr Aitken rather than a second academic as the interviewee to follow the package, and agreed with Stephen Mitchell that Mr Aitken was an imaginative choice of interviewee who gave the audience better "inside information" than an academic could.
The Committee was also satisfied that Dr al-Fagih did not have an automatic right of reply in this context.
The Committee discussed in detail the terms of the introduction used for Mr Aitken. Stephen Mitchell explained that in his judgement the introduction was "sufficient shorthand" to remind the Radio 4 audience of the context. He maintained that the Today programme could assume greater knowledge in its audience, and that the introduction was adequate to flag up the close relationship between Mr Aitken and the Saudi Royal Family, and did not give the impression that Mr Aitken was an objective observer.
The Committee noted that the introduction had not contained an explicit reference to the nature of Mr Aitken's relationship with the Saudi Royal Family. It queried whether the terms of the introduction had been a pre-condition of the interview, although Stephen Mitchell understood that the introduction was ad libbed and therefore not subject to conditions by Mr Aitken.
In conclusion, the Committee considered that the introduction would not have misled the audience and that it provided an acceptable context for the interview, although in its view the interview would have been better framed with a more explicit reference to the nature of Mr Aitken's relationship with the Saudi Royal Family.
The appeal was not upheld.