Published: 14:51, 01 July 2009
| Updated: 14:51, 01 July 2009
by business editor Trevor Sturgess
BBC chiefs have been accused of "hiding behind misinterpreted audience research" to justify their sacking of television presenters Geoff Clark and Beverley Thompson.
Sources within the Corporation claim the findings may have been adapted to suit the outcome they wanted. Rather than showing the experienced pair were a turnoff, as alleged, they in fact reveal that the presenters are "highly rated and popular".
Managers justified their controversial decision to axe Clark and Thompson from BBC South East Today and replace them with the younger team of Rob Smith and Polly Evans on the grounds that they were "not as popular as they used to be" and that Smith and Evans showed "more vitality".
A person familiar with the situation said: "I'm told the figures and the focus group findings are very much open to interpretation." Another said: "The surveys appear to have been angled at getting a certain answer."
The research findings have not been shown to staff or released to the public, despite a pledge of more openness by BBC director-general Mark Thompson in the wake of the release of BBC executive expense claims. Bosses cite the Data Protection Act as a reason for withholding the findings.
In a statement, the BBC said: "Audience research is not the type of information we would routinely publish. However, the BBC regularly undertakes audience research to ensure our programmes are what viewers want and we approach that with an open mind."
The decision to oust Clark and Thompson - both widely admired and experienced journalists - has been condemned by viewers. KentOnline has received scores of comments, overwhelmingly critical of the BBC's decision.
The BBC in Tunbridge Wells is also understood to have received hundreds of emails, letters and phone calls from angered viewers.
Bosses have told staff that the storm will pass and that there is always criticism whenever familiar faces are dropped.
But colleagues are sceptical. Many viewers switched to the BBC when Clark moved from ITV Meridian Tonight - a key reason why the BBC overhauled the previously dominant Meridian in the ratings war - and may switch back when Clark goes.
A source added: "Management have lost a lot of the staff's trust over the way it's been handled and a lot of the staff don't feel management are being completely honest with them over the reasons for the changes."
The decision has renewed concern that the BBC makes judgements on the basis of age. BBC chiefs fiercely deny any suggestion of ageism - but the accusation surfaces whenever older television presenters, expecially women, are dropped in favour of younger people.