Labour bashes `bloated' Beeb

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The BBC and Tony Blair's office were embroiled in an argument yesterday over Labour claims that the corporation was a bloated, overstaffed "Auntie's army".

The BBC fought back after Alastair Campbell, the Labour leader's press secretary, launched a pre-emptive strike against a Panorama programme to be shown next Monday. He said the BBC had 410 people accredited for Labour's Blackpool conference next week, and compared the 188 staff at the BBC's Westminster office to his own staff of two press officers.

A BBC source told the The Independent: "If he wants to cut the numbers, we can stop covering party conferences." A spokeswoman said the BBC was aware of 395 accreditations, one-third of whom were programme-makers. The rest were technical support staff or managers who needed to gain access to the conference area for a single event, such as receptions. The numbers were down on last year, but figures were not available to indicate by how much.

She emphasised that the BBC had two national television channels, five radio stations, separate services in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as English regions and the World Service.

Mr Campbell yesterday stood by his attack on the corporation, which could signal a repeat of Harold Wilson's deep suspicion of the it. Speaking on BBC radio yesterday, Mr Campbell kept up the onslaught on the Panorama film, which has not yet been finished, saying: "What I don't want is the start of Labour conference dominated by a great hoo-ha about Labour Party spin-doctors."

The film is likely to include footage of Labour officials seeking to persuade BBC journalists how to report events. Charlie Whelan, press officer to Gordon Brown, the shadow Chancellor, has been filmed telling a BBC reporter which part of Mr Brown's statement he should use in a news bulletin.

Mr Campbell became irritated with the Panorama team when he discovered that reporter Steve Bradshaw was being filmed while on the telephone to Mr Blair's office.

In his Sunday Times article yesterday he said "senior sources" in the BBC had told him Panorama was "hoping I eventually get so fed up being harassed that I thump its reporter". But a BBC executive said yesterday that Mr Campbell's claim that the programme was commissioned as "revenge" for Labour's successful court case against Panorama's interview with the Prime Minister on the eve of last year's Scottish local elections, was "preposterous". He added that Steve Hewlett, editor of Panorama, was a "populist, who isn't really interested in politics, and he thinks that what is interesting is spinning and spin-doctors".

Mr Campbell's onslaught appears to have been designed to exploit internal BBC divisions over the programme. The decision to schedule it for the day before Mr Blair's conference speech was taken when Clare Short, demoted to overseas-development spokeswoman, attacked "the people in the dark" around the Labour leader.