The BBC broadcast an apology after a retired general used the phrase "nigger in the woodpile" during an interview about the Iraq war on Radio 4's Today programme yesterday.
Major General Patrick Cordingley, an opponent of the Iraq invasion who commanded the 7th Armoured Brigade, the Desert Rats, during the 1991 Gulf war, used the phrase while trying to explain why British troops would be unable to leave until the Iraqi police had become an effective force.
He said: "If you hand over all that problem without sorting out the infiltration that is going on there, then you are building yourself a real problem for the future and we might never get out. It is the police which is the key to all this." But then he added: "Until one can be certain that the police are going to do the job properly and security can be passed over to them, that, I think, is the nigger in the woodpile at the moment." General Cordingley had used the phrase to describe the infiltration of Iraqi police by insurgents.
After the interview ended, the BBC was inundated with complaints via e-mail and telephone and an hour later General Cordingley expressed his personal apologies in a broadcast statement.
The statement said: "Earlier in the programme, one of our contributors used a phrase many of you found offensive. Following many calls and e-mails, Patrick Cordingley wishes us to make clear that he apologises for using the phrase and any offence caused."
The phrase - meaning a concealed factor that may have a harmful effect on a situation - originated in the US in the 1850s and was in common use in Britain until recent decades. It is now regarded by most people as being racially offensive.
General Cordingley is famous for having summoned his troops in 1991 from the top of his tank, when he quoted Kipling's poem "Tommy". He opposes this Iraq war on the ground that the case for it has not been made.
It was recently announced that former the Northern Ireland police chief Sir Ronnie Flanagan was being sent to Basra to review policing.