On Monday morning, you reported on Radio 4's Today programme that you had 'reluctantly come to the conclusion' that the England cricket captain should resign over the dirt in his pocket. In saying this, you were, in my opinion, as seriously in breach of your conditions of employment as you apparently believe that Mr Atherton was of his.
The BBC confirmed to me yesterday that public impartiality is 'in virtually all circumstances' required of its official correspondents. It would not have been acceptable for John Cole, as BBC Political Editor, to announce on the evening news that, in his opinion, Mrs Thatcher should resign. He was able only to report that such voices were calling for her departure, while others were imploring her to stay. He was permitted to comment on the likelihood of her survival, but not the merits of it.
Similarly, a Washington correspondent is allowed to report that some members of Congress are calling for President Clinton to be impeached, but would not be expected to call personally for his departure.
Some would argue that the position of the England cricket captain matters less than that of Prime Minister or President, and that, therefore, less rigorous reporting rules apply. I disagree. You were, in effect, putting the editorial weight of the BBC behind calls for a man's dismissal from the most important position in his profession, and that is as unacceptable in sport as in politics.
I also realise that the BBC's impartiality rules have been broken before: Martin Bell and John Simpson have both argued that even-handedness is impossible and pointless in 'emergency situations' like Bosnia or Rwanda. Perhaps, but is the Lord's ball-tampering row really an equivalent exception?
You may have noticed that your contribution was widely reported. You would, though, be wrong to take this as a tribute to the widespread respect for your opinions. Your remarks made a splash because of the three initials - BBC - attached to them. Lacking any voices in the English cricket establishment calling for the captain's resignation, newspapers have used your comments as justification for pursuing Mike Atherton after the chairman of seclectors, Raymond Illingworth, declared the matter closed. In effect, they are saying: if even the BBC thinks he should go, this is really serious.
It is precisely for fear of that effect that the BBC requires its correspondents not to take sides. So, if Mike Atherton ought to resign for blemishing the prestigious position he holds, then so ought you.
Ball-tampering is, in scientific terms, an attempt to apply 'bias' to one side of the ball. But you're not a bowler now, you're a BBC broadcaster, so from now on, please apply equal weight to both sides.
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