China takes BBC to task over critical Tibet report

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The Independent Online
China has reacted furiously to a BBC television documentary on its actions in Tibet, raising fears at the Corporation that future news coverage of China, including next year's handover of Hong Kong to Chinese control, is under threat.

BBC coverage of a recent clash in Tibet has been seen in some quarters as evidence that it is "treading very lightly", as one journalist put it. A Danish journalist offered film to the BBC of temples in which Buddhist monks had obeyed an order by Chinese officials to remove pictures of the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader. In one monastery near Lhasa, the order led to a row in which an official was beaten up and police opened fire, wounding three people.

BBC news staff initially showed considerable interest in the footage, said the journalist, but backed off after checking with their superiors, saying the matter was extremely delicate. No live pictures were used in the report on the clash at the monastery, which gave greater prominence to the official Chinese statement than to the Tibetan version of events. Although the BBC argued it could not be proved that the footage had been shot in Tibet, it was shown without problems in several other European countries.

A letter from the Chinese embassy in London to Bob Phillis, a deputy director-general of the BBC, has been seen by the Independent on Sunday. It says an Everyman programme on China's role in selecting the new Panchen Lama in Tibet is "anti-China", "biased" and contains "fabricated and distorted facts". It concludes: "There has been some improvement and progress recently in the relationship and co-operation betweeen the BBC and the Chinese side. We do not wish to see such a momentum reversed by any documentaries or news items like the one under question, which makes groundless charges and slander against China."

Despite an on-the-record denial by a BBC Television spokesman, several sources at the Corporation said the World Service radio correspondent in Peking, Adam Brookes, had been called in by the Chinese authorities. One source said Mr Brookes had been told that the bureau would be closed and BBC staff expelled if the documentary, Kingdom of the Lost Boy, was shown again.

The BBC spokesman said the Corporation had acknowledged receipt of the Chinese embassy's letter, and was investigating its allegations before replying. But a journalist in television news said the episode had made the BBC more cautious. "The situation is very sticky," he told the Independent on Sunday. "The really big story is Hong Kong, which is a marvellous chance for the BBC, and it would be terrible to have any bad press for the Chinese, which would definitely jeopardise the situation."

Colin Browne, director of corporate affairs, said: "The BBC strives for balance, and we use our own judgement. We do not change that approach because we may come under pressure."