The BBC has upheld complaints regarding a remark made by a guest commentator about Catholics being “cleared out of Scotland”. The ‘joke’, whch elicited laughter from other presenters, was made during Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral.
The broadcast was on the BBC News Channel and was being aired as Queen Elizabth’s coffin was taken from Balmoral to St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh.
Presenter Martin Geissler, off-camera and in charge of the commentary, mentioned that St Giles was where John Knox, the radical minister during the Scottish reformation, is buried. It was also where Knox famously threw a bible at a preacher for reading the words of a prayer — this was ‘too Catholic’ for Knox in the 16th century.
The cathedral serves as the main church, or “High Kirk” of the Presbyterian Church, also known as the Church of Scotland
Guest contributor Robert Lacey, a royal historian, said: “John Knox of course being your great Scottish Protestant reformer, who cleared the Catholics out of Scotland.”
Geissler commented, “It’s how history remembers him.” Laughter could then be heard in the studio.
The BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU) found that a previous apology for the response to on-air remarks did not go far enough and that its guidelines on “harm and offence” had been breached.
The BBC initially received more than 250 complaints and published an apology on its website. But the ECU has now ruled that this “fell short” of the action that should have been taken.
The BBC statement said: “Setting aside whether the statement about John Knox is true (and there are grounds for believing it exaggerated the impact of the Reformation on Scottish Catholicism), the ECU accepted the reaction gave an inappropriate impression,” the ruling states.
“It is understood the laughter was a startled reaction to an unexpected comment, and not an expression of amusement, but it nevertheless tended to give the impression that religious persecution was a matter which could be treated lightly.”
The ECU found that laughter “apparently at the expense of a religious group” during a “solemn occasion” such as coverage of the Queen’s funeral cortege did not meet the test.
The brief apology published on the BBC website, did not go far enough, according to those investigating the incident. That apology had been short and less than comprehensive. It had sated: “We are sorry for the offence caused by the unscripted exchange during our live coverage of the cortege carrying the Queen’s coffin.”
The BBC’s ECU ruling added: “The merit of this response is that it offered a clear and unambiguous apology and gave readers some explanation for what happened. This was in keeping with the BBC’s commitment to be open and honest about mistakes when they occur. But in the ECU’s view it fell short in that it failed to be clear about who was likely to have taken offence and why.
“The impression given is that it was a remark about John Knox, rather than about Catholics, which precipitated the exchanges in the studio and the subsequent laughter.”
A BBC spokesman said: “The ruling acknowledges we made a clear and unambiguous apology for what happened during a live commentary, but found that the summary of the complaint should have been more specific about the issue involved.”
Although John Knox was active in the 16th century, anti-Catholic and anti-Irish sentiments fomented across the centuries. Exactly 100 years ago the 1923 report to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland at St Giles was entitled The Menace of the Irish Race to Our Scottish Nationality which did much to foment anti-Irish feeling in Scotland.