Mon, Sep 19, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Blair, BBC at odds over Katrina

MUDSLINGING According to Rupert Murdoch, the UK prime minister told him the BBC's coverage of Hurricane Katrina was `full of hatred' -- but BBC pundits disagree

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has accused the BBC's coverage of Hurricane Katrina of being "full of hatred of America" and "gloating" at the country's plight, it was reported on Saturday.

Blair allegedly made the remarks in private to Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, which owns BBC rival Sky News.

Downing Street yesterday refused to comment on the report in the Financial Times. The BBC insisted that its coverage was "committed solely to relaying the events fully, accurately and impartially."

Murdoch, a long-standing critic of the BBC, was addressing the Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York.

He chuckled, "I probably shouldn't be telling you this," before recounting a recent conversation with Blair. He said Blair was in New Delhi when he made his objection to the BBC's coverage of the catastrophe in New Orleans: "He said it was just full of hatred of America and gloating at our troubles."

Bill Clinton, the former US president who was hosting the conference, also attacked the tone of the BBC's coverage during a seminar on the media. He said it had been "stacked up" to criticize the US federal government's slow response.

Sir Howard Stringer, chief executive of Sony Corporation and a former head of CBS News, said he had been "nervous about the slight level of gloating" by the BBC.

The disapproval will come as a blow to BBC executives who had declared themselves delighted with the hurricane coverage, led by Matt Frei. They believed they had learnt the lessons from the Dec. 26 tsunami in Asia, when the BBC was regarded as being slow off the mark.

Yesterday Blair's comments were strongly rejected by Martin Bell, the former BBC war correspondent and ex-member of parliament. He said: "Assuming it's accurate -- it may of course be that Tony Blair was simply telling Rupert Murdoch what he thought he wanted to hear. If he really does have a gripe with the BBC coverage, there is no shortage of forums in which he can say so publicly. But the last time he picked a fight with the BBC, as I recall, the government came off rather badly."

Bell added: "I think Matt Frei's reporting was absolutely immaculate and reflected the fact that one of the things the BBC is there for is to report events as they happened rather than as politicians may want them perceived to have happened. If Tony Blair does want to confront the BBC over this, I'd be surprised -- because he would find absolutely zero support, except perhaps among his usual henchmen."

Charles Wheeler, the veteran former US correspondent for the BBC, said: "I don't believe Murdoch actually said that. It doesn't sound like Blair to me. The coverage I saw was extremely good and got better and better. Matt Frei was very good. He got quite angry, which is what might have annoyed people. I don't see why people should be unemotional; I never was. You have to tell people what you feel and what you hate -- that's part of legitimate reporting."

A spokesman for the BBC said yesterday: "We have received no complaint from Downing Street, so it would be remiss of us to comment on what is reported as a private conversation."

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