Labour fury after BBC apologises for Anna Ford

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The Independent Online
The Labour Party was last night shocked at the BBC's decision to bow to Conservative Party pressure and admit to shortcomings in its interviewing of Chancellor Kenneth Clarke on Radio Four's Today programme.

The BBC's Director General, John Birt, agreed with the Tory Party Chairman, Dr Brian Mawhinney, that Mr Clarke was treated in an openly hostile" way by the programme's co-presenter, Anna Ford, while moments later the Labour Leader, Tony Blair, was handled with kid gloves. Dr Mawhinney had complained to Mr Birt about Ms Ford's constant interruptions of Mr Clarke.

Mr Birt said in a letter to Mr Mawhinney: "The editor of the programme has already made clear his view that there were more interruptions than were appropriate and, with hindsight, Anna Ford agrees."

The admission - which comes as broadcasters generally are complaining that they are under intense pressure from both Labour and the Tories in the run-up to the general election - has angered Labour. "The willingness of the BBC to back down in the face of pressures from the chairman of the Tory party is very alarming," a Labour Party spokesman said yesterday.

In recent weeks, senior broadcasters have been complaining openly that the competition between the parties to influence their priorities, and questioning has become near-intolerable. Every concession to one party, as yesterday, produces renewed pressure from the others. Some BBC insiders are upset that Mr Birt moved so quickly to placate Dr Mawhinney. During a lecture in Dublin early last year, the BBC director general publicly lectured his journalists for what he described as sneering at politicians.

In his letter to Dr Mawhinney, Mr Birt wrote: "The editor of Today accepts that more thought should have been given to ensuring greater consistency of approach to two major political interviews in the same edition of the programme."

Dr Mawhinney - who lost his temper on-air with another Today programme presenter, Sue MacGregor, earlier this year - had written to Mr Birt complaining about Ms Ford's frequent interruptions as she questioned Mr Clarke over tax and the "demon eyes" poster on 16 September.

Her parting shot: "So you are not going to elevate the debate?" had been a "disgraceful lapse from impartiality into blatant editorialising", said Dr Mawhinney. But Mr Birt insisted that Ms Ford's closing remark had not been intended as a statement of her personal view, but rather a question to which she expected a response. The BBC insists that the error was technical, not editorial.