Birt admits Tories treated `unfairly'

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SIR JOHN BIRT re-ignited the fierce political row over the impartiality of the BBC yesterday when he admitted that the Tories had not received a "fair shout on the airwaves".

The Independent has learnt that the outgoing director-general told the Tory leader, William Hague, that he agreed there had been "problems of journalistic imbalance".

Sir John's admission, revealed in a meeting with Mr Hague to discuss concerns over the appointment of Greg Dyke to the top job, was seized on by Conservatives last night. Senior Tories claimed that it bore out their fears about Mr Dyke's links to the Labour Party and backed up their decision to appoint independent consultants to monitor the BBC's news output for bias.

Sir John, Mr Dyke and the BBC chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, attempted to dispel Mr Hague's worries during a tense 40-minute meeting at Conservative Central Office yesterday. However, it became clear after the meeting that a gulf still remained between the Opposition and the BBC over Mr Dyke's appointment, despite his decision to sever all links with Labour.

Sir John had revealed his worries about Tory airtime at a private meeting with Mr Hague in December, but the contents of the discussion were not made public at the time.

"When we last discussed this I accepted that the Conservatives were not getting a fair shout on the airwaves," he told Mr Hague yesterday. There had been "past problems of journalistic balance", he said.

It emerged last night Sir John's concerns were passed on to senior BBC executives, and programme makers and editors have had meetings with Central Office to restore Tory confidence in their impartiality. Both Sir John and Mr Dyke stressed that they believed that there were now sufficient checks and balances to safeguard the BBC's impartiality.

However, Mr Hague remained unsatisfied with the reassurances and called on them to set up an independent body to monitor political balance. Mr Hague said during the meeting that while he had "no personal antipathy" to Mr Dyke, his appointment had "created new problems" on top of the problems admitted by Sir John.

Mr Dyke responded by saying it was legitimate for the Tories to raise the issue, but insisted that he be judged on his record once in post. "It's essential that the Opposition are given a fair crack. I understand it will be difficult to allay those fears until I'm in a position to be judged," he said.

The Tory chairman, Michael Ancram, who accompanied Mr Hague to the meeting, made it clear afterwards that the party remained unconvinced by Mr Dyke.

The meeting was arranged last week at the suggestion of Sir Christopher when he rang Mr Hague with advance notice of Mr Dyke's selection.

A BBC spokesman said Sir John's comments "were not an admission of bias".