BBC braced for new allegations of bias from Conservatives

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The BBC and opposition politicians yesterday signalled they were on the alert for an onslaught of Tory pressure on broadcasters as the next general election looms.

The corporation hit back at claims by Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that Radio 4's Today programme presenter, John Humphrys, was guilty of "open partisanship", with a counter-attack that in effect accused the Government of manipulating the media for political ends.

As Labour sources emphasised that they would keep a "wary eye" out for signs of undue pressure, Jack Straw, shadow Home Secretary, said: "For far too long Conservative ministers have sought, successfully, to dictate their own terms for radio and television interviews."

Mr Aitken, in a speech said to have been cleared by Downing Street, said that Mr Humphrys was "poisoning the well of political debate" with his "ego trip interviewing". He said the BBC could well be renamed "the Blair Broadcasting Corporation". Mr Aitken, a Cabinet right-winger, also accused Mr Humphrys of interrupting the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, 32 times in a short interview last month, and added that he was "not conducting the interview as an objective journalist seeking information but as a partisan pugilist trying to strike blows". Yesterday, Roger Gale, chairman of the Tory backbench media committee, called for Mr Humphrys to stand down.

A BBC statement said: "Viewers and listeners expect BBC interviews with politicians to be fair but also robust and testing. Day in and day out John Humphrys and his colleagues on the Today programme demonstrate with great professionalism how it is possible to achieve both those objectives. We invariably take great care to investigate complaints from any party and we also have to be alert to the kind of pressures which in the past have tended to increase as a general election gets nearer."

Mr Straw said Tory ministers "routinely refuse to do debates with their opposite numbers on the Labour front bench. Michael Howard [Home Secretary] has done so twice since Christmas.''

Mr Humphrys said on BBC radio yesterday, interrupting his interviewer to do so: "Of course, I interrupt sometimes. If we didn't, a lot of politicians would take a five- or six-minute interview to make a five- or six-minute party broadcast."

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