Belfast Telegraph

BBC NI 'has questions to answer' over Alliance fake calls furore

By Claire O'Boyle

The BBC has serious questions to answer over the Alliance Party 'fake callers' row - or risk losing the trust of audiences, politicians have warned.

Radio Ulster's Talkback programme became embroiled in scandal after a top Alliance Press man claimed his party was "pretty successful last year with hijacking the show" with fake callers - adding he hoped to do the same during this election.

Read More: Exposed: Alliance plot to hijack BBC NI Talkback show with fake callers

Long responds to exposure of Alliance plot to 'hijack' BBC show - 'just tongue in cheek' 

Yesterday the BBC reissued a standard response about its methods of monitoring phone-in callers, adding the line: "William Crawley addressed the story in a style familiar to the Talkback listeners" when asked why the show had opened with a light-hearted message to listeners that the team had survived a hijacking plot, as Bond theme Goldfinger was played on top.

The only other additional detail was the claim producers worked "as rigorously as possible" to identify each caller.

The BBC did not confirm whether an inquiry had been launched into the issue, or if changes would be made to future caller monitoring procedures.

The UUP's Doug Beattie said if the BBC didn't address the issue seriously, it risked undermining its shows' credibility.

"The BBC can't ignore this," said Mr Beattie. "They've got to understand if people are listening to their shows, and Talkback in particular, they'll be wondering if the callers are authentic. This really risks undermining their work.

"I think William Crawley is good and I've always liked the show, but now if I'm listening to the show, or being interviewed, I'll be wondering if these callers have been set up by their parties. We need to know the BBC is taking this seriously."

DUP MP Gregory Campbell said following Alliance's claims it "hijacked" Talkback successfully ahead of last year's election, and that using fake callers was "standard practice", the BBC should now listen back through the 2016 leaders' interviews.

"The onus falls on the BBC to do something about this," said Mr Campbell. "Alliance is being pretty clear here they believe the system is being flouted. Surely the BBC should be working very hard to make sure its programmes don't become a propaganda tool for any party?

"The BBC is a public broadcaster, paid for by the taxpayer, so they've got to be impartial and comprehensive in making sure they get it right.

"If they aren't doing thorough checks on people, why not? Surely a producer or a presenter live on air can ask the question - are you affiliated to a political party, are you a paid-up member? Then that can be declared. If the callers are being dishonest and it comes out later, at least the BBC can say they have tried."

A BBC insider admitted vetting phone-in callers "isn't an exact science".

"It's a difficult one because you've got lots to get right in a very fast-moving, live radio environment," he said.

"Producers need to make sure the callers are saying something interesting but not legally problematic, that there's a balance of stories and people on the show.

"It's far from an exact science and without much time to do all that, you've got to take people at face value too.

"I don't remember ever being told to ask if people had a political link, I don't think that's a standard question - but I've never worked the phone-ins during an election. Maybe it should be. If serious editorial controls have been breached it will be a serious matter, but they will hang on, circle the wagons and defend themselves from collateral damage if they can."

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