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BBC response to queries on 'phone-in hijack' risible: MP

By David Young

BBC Northern Ireland is facing fresh calls for greater transparency after the organisation refused to provide basic information about how the Talkback current affairs radio show selects callers to go on air.

The Belfast Telegraph asked the questions in the wake of this week's exposure of a secretive Alliance Party campaign to target the lunchtime programme, hosted by William Crawley.

The show has been featuring phone-in sessions with Northern Ireland's party leaders in the run-up to next week's Stormont election.

A party spin doctor had hoped to manipulate public opinion in favour of its candidates.

Calling for greater openness and transparency from the corporation, East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell revealed he had also lodged a formal complaint with the broadcaster over the Belfast Telegraph's revelations.

Making public the correspondence between him and BBC NI chief Peter Johnston, he said its response to legitimate questions was not good enough.

In his letter of complaint, the MP wrote: "Trust in the media is already at a low, with many alleging the BBC to be liberal, pro-gay marriage, pro-abortion and pro-EU. This latest story is a further blow to confidence in BBC editorial standards and a betrayal of BBC editorial guidelines... we need to be assured that no BBC employees are involved in facilitating this deception.

"Can politicians appearing on phone-ins expect to get fair treatment given the boasts of the Alliance Party of "hijacking" the shows?"

He added that he planned to raise issues of lack of confidence in the BBC in Parliament and "I wish your views to be fairly represented in any comments I make."

Yesterday the Belfast Telegraph asked the BBC for information about the number of callers to the Talkback programme for each party leader interview, and for a copy of the editorial guidelines used to decide which callers were permitted n air.

We received in response a curt statement that did not address either of the questions.

The BBC said: "There is no evidence that Talkback has been compromised in any way whatsoever."

The BBC said it had nothing further to add.

Learning of the response to this newspaper's questions, Mr Campbell said: "It's not a surprise. They need to be more open.

"This is a repeated failure on the part of the BBC, on a whole range of issues, where despite being funded by the public purse via the licence fee, they fail to give information about how they are spending the public's money."

In his response to Mr Campbell's complaint, Mr Johnston said: "We understand that people may, for a variety of reasons and in different ways, seek to influence or manipulate BBC output.

"The safeguards that we have in place are intended to frustrate such efforts, and we remain confident that they have been working effectively.

"Constant vigilance is, of course, required; we take any risks/issues in this area extremely seriously.

"Callers to BBC radio are routinely screened and on-air conversations are moderated by skilled BBC presenters, supported by dedicated production teams."

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