THE BBC has been accused of "bias" after a predominately loyalist audience heckled nationalists taking part in Stephen Nolan's television programme.
Mr Nolan apologised yesterday after admitting some people with tickets for The Nolan Show at the BBC's Blackstaff House in Belfast did not turn up because of fears about a large loyalist protest outside.
Throughout the programme, which was broadcast on Wednesday night, audience members interrupted Sinn Fein assembly member Gerry Kelly when he spoke and heckled other speakers who disagreed with them.
There were regular shouts of "traitor", "lundy" and "no surrender" during the debate about the flags crisis.
It is also understood some loyalist audience members cheered when footage of rioters attacking police was shown in the studio, although this appeared to be edited out of the programme, which was recorded about three hours prior to broadcast.
At times programme host Stephen Nolan struggled to control the debate as tempers flared.
As well as Mr Kelly, the panel included Alliance leader David Ford, SDLP assembly member Conall McDevitt and the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson.
Around 100 loyalists held a protest outside the BBC's Blackstaff House studio as The Nolan Show was being recorded inside.
Speaking yesterday on his morning radio programme, Mr Nolan told a caller he regretted the make-up of the audience.
"Usually in a Nolan television show there is a much better mix," he said.
"What happened last night is that the usual mix of the audience, in the same way that they're not coming into the city centre to some of these businesses and some of the pubs... the usual Nolan mix of the audience, which is basically representing the community and all different walks of life, they didn't come last night.
"My pretty reasonable guess is that they didn't come last night because they knew that there were protesters outside.
"We had a choice to make and the choice to make is 'look, do you still try to do the television show to the best of your ability? Do you try to do it in as fair a way as possible, knowing that your usual mix of the audience won't be there for circumstances, to be honest, beyond what I can control?' I'm sorry last night if you felt that the audience wasn't in the usual mix and I wish it had have been but I hope you understand why.
"What I then tried to do when I was chairing the debate was to keep it as balanced as I could."
Political consultant Gerry Lynch, a former Alliance Party chief executive who was in the audience, described the atmosphere as "intimidating".
"I think they [the BBC] were caught on the hop with their policy of first come, first serve for tickets,'' he said.
"There was a protest at the door of the studio and lots of people walked away when they saw that.
"Why did they have a protest outside the TV studios when there's a programme taking place inside that will give them all the coverage they want?
"It's intimidation. This was an attempt to frighten people who disagree with them."
A Sinn Fein spokesman said the programme-makers had a responsibility to "ensure that the audience is a fair reflection of society".
"Clearly there was an issue of bias and balance in the audience and we will be raising this with the BBC," he said.
"It is obviously incumbent on programme-makers to ensure that the audience is a fair reflection of society in general and this clearly wasn't the case for this show."
A spokeswoman for the BBC said tickets for the event were issued on a "first come first serve basis".
She added that no tickets were given to protesting loyalists but that a "smaller number of people than normal turned up" to take part in the show.
"We sought to include a range of perspectives through the selection of panel members and invited contributors," she said
"Last night's invited contributors included community representatives from unionist and nationalist areas in Belfast along with business people and political commentators.
"Stephen Nolan's questioning was rigorous and fair to everyone involved."
When asked how many complaints it had received about the show, the BBC said: "We do not routinely publish information about the number or specific nature of editorial complaints."
■ PANEL: From left, David Ford, Gerry Kelly, Stephen Nolan, Jeffrey Donaldson and Conall McDevitt on The Nolan Show on Wednesday night PICTURES: BBC videograbs ■ QUESTIONS: Loyalists Jamie Bryson, left, and Jim Wilson ■ CHURCH: Willie Ward, a worker at St Matthew's Church in the Short Strand which had petrol bombs thrown at it ■ VIEWS: An audience member at The Nolan Show