Former BBC Three Counties Radio’s Breakfast Show presenter was sacked for serious breach of editorial guidelines, the BBC Trust has said.
It follows the now infamous interview in November 2015 between Iain Lee and Libby Powell, a lawyer for Christian Concern, discussing a former prison worker who was disciplined after citing verses from the Bible that listed homosexuality among a list of sins.
The station received three complaints over the next two days, to which the Assistant Editor responded to, acknowledging there had been issues with the output which were being addressed with the programme team.
In contrast, Ofcom received six complaints about the item, but decided not to pursue them. The complaints were assessed by the regulator but did not raise issues warranting investigation.
An on air apology was broadcast on 11 November and Iain left the station on 16 November. He’s starting a new late night show on talkRADIO later this month.
The BBC Trust said Iain is well known to his audience and had established himself as a presenter who encouraged audience engagement and who displayed a robust interviewing style and a willingness to address controversial subjects, but considered the interview was in breach of the Guidelines for Impartiality.
The Trust highlighted that Iain had referred to his own opinions about the matter in a way that was unequivocal. For instance, when interviewing the representative of the Christian Legal Centre, he stated that the prison had been right to take formal disciplinary action against its employee.
The Trustees acknowledged that the presenter regretted that he might have appeared to be opposed to Christianity, or religion generally, when this was not the case. They noted that in particular he regretted the comment he had made about some Christians being “patronising” and “superior”.
However, Trustees considered that the presenter should have been able to robustly and properly challenge the interviewees without recourse to personal attack and without taking a personal position on it. They noted that a final interviewee from the Gay and Lesbian Christian Movement was able to challenge the views of the two previous interviewees in a manner that was measured and productive.
On the day before the broadcast, both the station’s Editor and Assistant Editor were away from the building so neither attended editorial meetings about the interview. On the morning of the transmission, the Editor was away from the station and the Assistant Editor did not hear the first live interview. In future, the station would ensure that a senior figure was always available to supervise Breakfast commissioning decisions by attending the daily commissioning meetings.
The Trust reports that the programme producer would receive refresher training in editorial standards and talent management.
In addition, Trustees had been concerned to note that there had been recent occasions when other local radio stations had broadcast output that had included the presenter’s own views on a particular subject. They noted that these included the broadcast of comments by a presenter that were potentially offensive and which exceeded the expectations of the audience. They considered that it was of the greatest importance to the BBC that its output reflected the widest range of opinion and did not stifle debate. They believed that the BBC’s local radio output had a critical role to play in terms of enabling the widest possible public debate and that local radio presenters had considerable leeway to be provocative to engage audiences. However, they considered that where presenters appeared to defend a particular stand on an issue in an inappropriately combative manner the effect was not to broaden debate but was likely to be the opposite – as potential callers might be less likely to contact a radio station if they felt they would not receive a fair hearing.
In reaction, new training is taking place across local radio to increase understanding of this subject by production teams and presenters. The BBC considered this is an appropriate way of learning from the recent breaches of Editorial Guidelines and ought to strengthen the BBC’s output.