Labour steps up attacks on BBC

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The Independent Online
LABOUR officials yesterday accused the BBC of "buying a package" from the Conservatives for a media relaunch of John Major's premiership and warned of top-level protests if there were "further concessions" to the Government.

A senior Labour spokesman complained that Mr Major has been interviewed on Good Morning, the BBC1 daytime show, followed by yesterday's television coverage of the Conservative Central Council. He will be interviewed at length on Panorama tomorrow and there will be high-profile news footage of Mr Major meeting President Clinton in Washington over the next few days. "We see that as a package. The Tory party has put that together, and the BBC has bought it," the spokesman added.

"We will be closely monitoring the BBC to see if they make any other concessions to the pressure the Government has placed on them since last week. We will make the maximum fuss if that happens. We are alarmed at the way that the coverage seems to be panning out." Labour would seek urgent meetings with Tony Hall, the BBC's director of news and current affairs, or with the BBC chairman, Marmaduke Hussey.

Labour leaders believe that BBC journalists feel intimidated by the ferocious attacks launched on the BBC's impartiality by Cabinet ministers last week, led by Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who accused Radio 4 Today programme presenter John Humphrys of "open partisanship".

They are also unhappy at the extraordinarily delicate handling of tomorrow's Panorama interview, which was the subject of a leaked memorandum from the programme's deputy editor, Nick Robinson, to Tim Gardam, the BBC's head of weekly programmes. In it, Mr Robinson, a former chairman of the Young Conservatives, warns that the BBC might face trouble over giving Mr Major a 40-minute political platform only three days before the local elections in Scotland, with no similar facility for the Labour leader.

But in a private message to BBC staff circulated yesterday, Mr Gardam defended the kid-glove treatment of Mr Major. "There has been nothing different in the planning of this interview to any other," he insisted.

"...Both Nick Robinson's memo and Mr Major's acceptance of our bid pre- dated Jonathan Aitken's speech attacking the BBC. The BBC is the one place where extended interviews with leading politicians remain a national event. No broadcast or newspaper journalist would pass up such an interview with the Prime Minister."

He added: "It is inevitable that we will be criticised by one party or another. All that matters is that our journalists ask demanding questions of all parties across all our programmes. This we will continue to do."

The postbag to the Today programme yesterday showed that listeners were ten to one in support for Mr Humphrys, pilloried by Mr Aitken as an "ego trip interviewer" who was "poisoning the wells of political debate".