Media: A far bigger manipulator than Peter Mandelson

The ban on mentioning Mandelson's private life is disgraceful and unsustainable
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I WORKED for the BBC for 34 years. In all that time I never received an instruction about what I was or was not allowed to say in a news programme. The only exception was in Belfast in 1969, when I was not allowed to identify the refugees fleeing from their homes in the Falls Road as Roman Catholics. That was a mistake. But apart from that, I had the freedom to report what I found.

Now, it seems, the censors are back in control at Broadcasting House. On Sunday I was asked to take part in a discussion on Sir David Frost's television emporium, about the private lives of politicians. The focus, obviously, was on Ron Davies, who had resigned as Secretary of State for Wales. I wished to make some general - and not very controversial - remarks on the pressures of public life. MPs, and especially Ministers, often lead quite lonely lives. they compete with each other, like gladiators, in a very public arena. They are expected to be in two places at once. Their lives are performances - for the benefit of their constituencies, whips, opponents, and even their civil servants. For that reason politics sometimes attracts some rather odd people - Ron Davies, perhaps, included.

I was about to make these points from a television studio in Manchester, when a disembodied BBC voice cut in on the line from London.

"Are you aware," said the voice, "that the BBC has imposed a ban on any mention of Mr Peter Mandelson's private life?"

I told the voice that actually I had no intention of discussing Mr Mandelson in any way. But if I wished to, I should have been free to do so. I had not left the BBC in order to be censored by it.

Politicians are public figures and actually entitled to very little private life. Their families, on the other hand - wives, partners, children - are entitled to have their privacy respected: but that is another matter.

I regard the BBC's action in this case as disgraceful and unprecedented, and a sad example of its present loss of confidence. The ban will be unsustainable. It gives rise to further questions: who else may be admitted to the list of the BBC's protected species? Is it necessary, to qualify for this special status, to be a friend of Sir John Birt, the BBC's director general? Is it a private club or can I join?

I have had some personal experience of having my own personal life intruded into, and so have those close to me. I have no objection on my own behalf, but a great deal of objection on theirs.

The BBC has not only manoeuvred itself into an absurd position. It has done Mr Mandelson no service at all, by drawing attention and publicity to a total non-issue.

Provided that he does his job competently - and he does it very competently - Mr Mandelson's sexuality is a matter of no importance. It does not bother me, and I doubt if it bothers many others, either. He has a right to talk about it if he so wishes. And he has an equal right not to talk about it.

But I am deeply troubled by the BBC's prohibition. Sir John Birt's BBC is not the BBC that I joined. Nor is it, substantially, the BBC that I worked in. It must evict the thought police in its midst. It can then return to its proper role, as the voice of a free people.

See Letters, page 2