THE BBC was at the centre of a row last night after banning the wearing of poppies on air during the season of remembrance.
In a controversial ruling branded "arrogant and scandalous" by one MP, it emerged that presenters on the BBC World channel have been ordered to remove them, as the symbol for fallen servicemen is not recognised overseas.
Rachel Attwell, controller of BBC News 24 and BBC World channel, said: "Because we have a global audience, it has always been policy that news presenters do not wear poppies. There is a lack of awareness of what the poppy means overseas. It is simply not recognised."
She claimed that the policy, which is seen as part of the corporation’s ongoing bid to update its image, applied to presenters only.
A BBC spokesman added: "The BBC remains fully committed to reflecting the season of remembrance."
However, the BBC was forced to apologise when it emerged that a guest on the BBC World Channel, a 24-hour rolling news and business service broadcast to 180 million homes world-wide, was ordered to remove his poppy before being interviewed. The BBC, which has notices posted onto computers at the studios of BBC World, warning that poppies are not worn on set, insisted that the request had been a "mistake".
Yesterday, representatives of British servicemen angrily condemned the rule.
Gerald Howarth, Conservative MP for Aldershot - dubbed the home of the British Army - and vice-chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, said that the BBC’s policy would "anger a lot of people needlessly".
He said: "Nothing demonstrates more clearly how arrogant the BBC can sometimes be and how they seem to think that somehow they are superior to and divorced from the British people. They are not the World Broadcasting Corporation, they are the British Broadcasting Corporation and the idea that presenters should not wear poppies is as daft as the British Airways’ decision to remove the Union Flag from their aeroplanes."
The Royal British Legion urged the BBC to rethink its policy.
Jeremy Lillies, a spokesman for the organisation, said he was "very surprised" to learn of BBC World’s policy and insisted that the poppy was an internationally recognised symbol.
"We feel this is wrong," he said, "We distribute poppies to many countries throughout the world including most of Europe, virtually all the Commonwealth, the United States and countries in the Middle East. So, we would very much dispute the suggestion that it does not mean anything to people outside the UK.
"We believe the poppy is the international symbol of remembrance and we would ask BBC World to think again on this issue."
It is not the first time that the corporation has provoked protests over its insistence that staff adhere to a strict policy during the remembrance period. The BBC in Northern Ireland incensed nationalists by insisting that local television news presenters wear a British Legion poppy, a symbol which has become identified with loyalism in the province, in the run-up to Remembrance Day. Those who refused were told that they would not appear.
One of its most popular news presenters, Donna Traynor, a Catholic who caused outrage by refusing to wear one, later revealed that she received hate mail as a result. Two years ago, BBC Scotland ruled that all its presenters had to wear Scottish-made, four-petal poppies, rather than the English variety, which has two petals and green leaves.
But the banning of poppy-wearing was interpreted as having more in common with the BBC’s drive to modernise. Earlier this month, the corporation, which in the 1920s and 1930s insisted its radio announcers wore dinner jackets after 8pm, announced that on-screen reporters were to be less formal.