The multinational brewing giant Heineken was at the centre of a race row last night after it said there were too many "negroes" in the audience of a new television show it is sponsoring.
Hotel Babylon, a youth culture and music show, is being produced by Planet 24, the television company set up by Sir Bob Geldof to launch The Big Breakfast. The new show will be broadcast tonight on ITV by Granada Television.
Pilot editions of the show featured Dani Behr, a former presenter of the "youth" show The Word, announcing live music acts such as soul singer Seal and the reggae artist Shaggy from a mock hotel bar, with Heineken products on display.
But last month Justus Kos, from Heineken's sponsorship department at its head office in Amsterdam, faxed Planet 24 demanding more "Heineken- ising" of the show. "More evidence of beer is not just requested but needed."
His 20 December fax also criticised studio audiences: "The audience should be aspirational but not too much on the edge. There was a too high proportion of negroes. Although the audience group seems to be a mixture, director and/or camera crew have a tendency towards selecting just extravagant people. Also 'normal' people should be filmed."
The fax from Heineken - advertising slogan: "refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach" - also called for "less men drinking wine, preferably masculine drinks like beer, whisky".
Sir Bob Geldof, a founder and still major shareholder in Planet 24, yesterday said Heineken could "go f... themselves" as far as he was concerned. "I heard about the infamous fax and I hooted with derision. It is our programme, not Heineken's."
Bernie Grant, Labour MP for Tottenham, wrote to Heineken this week demanding an explanation for the fax. "This is a reflection on the privatisation of television where increasing amounts of airtime are devoted to private productions," he said. "Inevitably, powerful multinational sponsors will seek to influence editorial control. One can't help being deeply concerned when this influence has a racist guise."
Last night Karel Vuursteen, chief executive of Heineken worldwide, reacted to the fax with dismay. Replying to Mr Grant, he said: "Having read the original, only one thing can be said about it: it should never have been written. I am truly shocked about the content of the paragraph you refer to, since it is totally against everything Heineken stands for. Heineken denounces all discrimination and will live up to that. I hope you can accept my sincere apology and I can assure you that proper steps will be taken to prevent recurrence."
A spokesman for Heineken said its export brand was sold in 177 countries and was the most widely drunk beer in the UK, with 125 million pints consumed each year. He refused to comment on Mr Kos's fate, but he promised: "There will be no repeat of this."