BBC hits back at Mawhinney over bias allegation

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The Independent Online
The BBC was last night engaged in a bitter battle with the Tory leadership over allegations of political bias against the Today programme by Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman.

Dr Mawhinney's attack on the flagship current affairs radio programme was applauded by Tory representatives at the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool but rejected by the BBC. "The Today programme has no political philosophy other than that of impartiality," said a BBC spokesman.

In a hard-hitting speech marking a sharp contrast to his predecessor Jeremy Hanley, Dr Mawhinney claimed the programme had given air-time to calls for an pounds 8bn increase in public expenditure in one week. Accusing the BBC of bowing to pressure groups, Dr Mawhinney said: "Let me remind the BBC - this government does not govern because it has won some broadcasting award, it has a mandate. The Today programme only has a licence."

The programme had a political philosophy, he said. "It believes strongly that there is no problem which cannot be solved by more public spending. And it is always happy to provide a platform for anyone with a similar philosophy to make their pitch. Their hands in your pocket is its motto."

The Tory party's media monitoring unit had studied the programme during September and found spending proposals which would add up to pounds 412bn over a year. "That amounts to pounds 62 per working person per working day - national bankruptcy," Dr Mawhinney added. He warned the BBC that the unit would continue to monitor programmes for bias in the run up to the general election.

The warning comes hard on the heels of a row at the Labour conference when Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary, sent a fax to BBC news editors urging them not to allow the OJ Simpson verdict to overshadow the Labour leader's keynote speech on the evening news. Dr Mawhinney's attack suggests the BBC could come under fire from both sides as the election approaches.

The party chairman also attacked Mr Blair, the shadow Home Secretary Jack Straw and "loony left" councils for giving grants to fringe groups. He ridiculed Labour-controlled Camden council for giving a grant to the local Hopscotch Asian Women's Group.

It caused guffaws among the Tory faithful, but Frank Dobson, a shadow cabinet minister whose constituency covers the group, demanded an apology. He said the club was also funded by the Home Office and the Save the Children Fund.

Dr Mawhinney lifted Tory supporters with a rousing call to arms, assuring them they were heading for victory. He also urged the public to protest about soft sentences in a foretaste of law-and-order measures to be announced by the Home Secretary.

How the figures were worked out

The public spending demands allegedly made on the Today programme in the week beginning 25 September add up to at least pounds 7.92bn and would require an extra 5 per cent on the basic rate of income tax, the Conservative Research Department claimed yesterday.

But a "Costing the Today Programme" breakdown amounts to little more than a compilation of contributions from programme guests and assumptions.

Friends of the Earth, for example, called for policies to reduce traffic. In the absence of figures, the CRD calculated the cost of a 5 per cent increase in transport spending - or an extra pounds 176.5m - "the very least needed to make any substance out of FoE's demands." In the case of a Today report on underfunding the Crown Prosecution Service, the CRD appear to have simply plucked a 5 per cent increase in the CPS's budget, costing pounds 14.75m, out of the air.

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