The BBC has been accused of having a "total sense of humour failure" after banning its political editor, Nick Robinson, and other senior journalists such as Huw Edwards and George Alagiah from taking part in one of the corporation's own entertainment television programmes.
The extraordinary situation, which has caused a major split among BBC management figures, comes ahead of tomorrow's filming of the new BBC Two news-based game show series, The Bubble, which is aimed at a high-brow audience and is due to make its debut at 10pm on Friday. BBC News is refusing to co-operate with the light-hearted entertainment programme for fear that it could undermine the reputation of its journalism. "They saw the words 'fake clips' and hit the panic button. They are treating the audience like idiots," said a source close to the row.
The format for The Bubble – which has been successful in several other countries – involves three comedians being cut off from the news for several days in a country house with no access to any media and then being asked to distinguish between authentic and fake news items. Both ITV News and Sky News have been happy to co-operate with the series and supply it with news footage. The only BBC footage to appear will be archive material, even though the series is supposed to reflect stories of the week.
The show is being made by Hat Trick Productions, which for 20 years has made the popular BBC Two news-based game show Have I Got News For You. The three contestants – Frank Skinner, American comedian Reginald D Hunter and Victoria Coren – are due to be brought to London tomorrow for filming in the evening.
The series, which is hosted by the comedian David Mitchell, is intended to appeal to viewers who enjoy the BBC Two quiz show QI. Sources supportive of the show say it is absurd to think that the BBC Two audience will be confused into thinking they are watching a genuine news item when the clips appear with a logo for The Bubble and are accompanied by the laughter of a 350-strong studio audience.
The ban on any involvement in the show has been ordered by the director of BBC News, Helen Boaden. She has been tipped as a possible first female director general of the corporation and has the backing of Mark Byford, the deputy director general and head of BBC Journalism. Some of the BBC's most senior figures, based on the executive sixth floor of Television Centre in London, are bemused by the stance of the journalists.
Critics who think the BBC has never fully recovered confidence in its journalism since the Hutton Inquiry of 2004 and the Queensgate documentary fakery scandal of 2007 will see the ban as a sign of enduring nervousness in the newsroom, particularly in the heightened atmosphere preceding a general election. "There is a climate of fear and they are running scared in case they make a mistake," said a source. "But there has been a total sense of humour failure."
Initially it seemed that BBC News would be happy to co-operate with the project. For the pilot show, which featured Skinner and the comedians Miranda Hart and Katy Brand, the panellists watched a clip of Nick Robinson reporting from College Green, outside Parliament, on Sir Fred Goodwin's willingness to hand back £1.5m in bonus payments. Skinner correctly identified the clip as a fake by spotting that Big Ben was showing the time as 3.40pm. Robinson – who apparently thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the ruse – has been barred from further involvement with the show, in which he was shown "throwing back" to news anchor George Alagiah.
The programme's supporters are dismayed by apparent double standards from BBC News. They point out that the corporation broadcasts realistic shows which are more likely to cause alarm to casual viewers, such as the spy drama Spooks. And they say BBC News figures have been allowed in the past to take part in fictional productions. Sophie Raworth appeared as a newsreader in the BBC satirical comedy Taking the Flak last year. Louise Minchin has played a newsreader in such shows as Spooks, Torchwood and Silent Witness. Natasha Kaplinsky, during her time at the BBC, frequently appeared as a newsreader in the sitcom My Hero and in the drama Dalziel & Pascoe.
A spokesman for BBC News said: "We are sure The Bubble on BBC Two will be extremely funny but BBC journalists will leave it to the comedians to do the comedy."
The Bubble: Sorting real news from fake
Judging by the items chosen in the making of the pilot for the BBC's latest game show, there's no chance of fearful viewers mistakenly thinking they've chanced upon a fateful news flash. Not unless they're alarmed by news that a Norfolk osteopath has been using the rectal application of a didgeridoo to relieve lower back pain, or that officials at Warrington railway station have introduced a No Kissing regulation in the taxi waiting area. Both of those stories were true, apparently.
The Bubble's news items, two-thirds of which are bogus, are a mixture of local and national film clips, tabloid press stories (not very well faked to these trained eyes) and headlines read out by host David Mitchell, who is typically witty. As well as challenging the exasperated Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn's catchphrase "You Couldn't Make it Up", the show highlights the ridiculous nature of some news reports, which is perhaps why some BBC journalistic high-ups have a problem with it.
The show's success will depend on the quality of repartee from the three contestants, who must be persuaded of the appeal of spending four days and three nights without their families and cut off from the outside world in a reputedly haunted country house. But if you like QI and HIGNFY you will probably like The Bubble too.
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