In a detailed and powerful attack which sent shock waves through the corporation, Panorama reporter John Ware said the latest episode of The Rantzen Report had the "potential for seriously damaging the BBC's reputation for fair-minded journalism".
Ms Rantzen immediately launched a powerful defence. Writing in today's Independent, she says the attack amounted to a "perversion of the truth, a twisting of the facts". She also admitted to being "hurt and shocked" by the article.
The unseemly dispute between two highly respected BBC journalists will cause immense embarrassment to the corporation, especially as the argument centres on the crucial issue of journalistic standards.
There is mounting concern among some journalists in the news and current- affairs department of the BBC that a move towards populism in this kind of programme could dilute journalistic standards in parts of the organisation. The Rantzen Report is made by the features department.
The row went public when Mr Ware, who presents Rough Justice, wrote a lengthy article in yesterday's Sunday Telegraph attacking an episode of The Rantzen Report, a 30-minute audience-based show which Ms Rantzen presents.
The programme - shown a week ago - highlighted the case of Ian Parker, a patient at the British Home and Hospital for Incurables in South London. It used comments from his mother and said that 28-year-old Ian, left brain-damaged by a childhood virus, lacked stimulation from staff and effectively was left to his own devices to vegetate. The programme makers also used a hidden camera to "expose" Mr Parker's alleged plight and sent in an independent assessor.
Mr Ware, who knows another patient at the home, investigated himself and reported that not only had Mr Parker not been neglected or ignored, he had been well cared for by a hard-working and dedicated staff. He also criticises the programme for using the spy camera when the home was willing to permit filming, and said the independent assessor used by the programme had in fact spent little time with the patient.
He concludes: "The journalism in this programme wasn't just sloppy, the programme was misleading and fundamentally unfair." This "worst and brashest kind of tabloid television journalism was a threat to the BBC's integrity".
Ms Rantzen said she only knew of Mr Ware's attack when she picked up her copy of the paper. "I haven't stopped reeling since," she said. "What pains me most is that he did not bother to call me first."
Mr Ware brushed aside the criticism, adding: "For me the real issue is the factual accuracy of her programme. The only way to check the facts was not to go back to Esther - she's already had her say - but to the original source material." He admitted he had not sought permission from his employers to make the "personal views", but a BBC spokeswoman was unable to say whether he could face disciplinary action.
Meanwhile, the home's matron, Noelle Kelly, said it would be taking the programme to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission. "The programme was very misleading - and that is putting it very politely," she said.
Senior broadcasters at the BBC were surprised at the vehemence of Mr Ware's attack, although most said they agreed with him. "It's true and everybody knows it," said a senior BBC producer.