Television: A hijacking? Fine. Suicide bombers on the Tube? Don't even think about it

Susan O'Keeffe wanted to make a 'Panorama' about a terrorist attack on London. The Government had other ideas
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The Independent Online

Taking morning coffee to discuss terrorism with the mandarins of government is I accept a rather unusual entry in anyone's diary. On a cold day last December we assembled in a small dark room in Whitehall.

Taking morning coffee to discuss terrorism with the mandarins of government is I accept a rather unusual entry in anyone's diary. On a cold day last December we assembled in a small dark room in Whitehall.

We had contacted the Cabinet Office and the Home Office and explained that we were producing a rather unusual Panorama, designed to assess the state of preparedness for a terrorist attack on London. We said that the programme would be built around a fictional scenario and we asked to come and meet them to talk about it. The Cabinet Office hosted an on-the-record meeting and the Home Office sent its representative.

On the face of it the Cabinet Office seemed willing to help - provided we agreed to organise our terrorist attack in a way that was acceptable to them. On its list of acceptability, car bombs were top, with hostage-taking or hijacking coming in second.

We said we did not believe car bombs, hijackings or hostage-taking accurately reflected the terrorist threat prevailing in the UK. Not because we wanted to be difficult but because all our research suggested these were remnants of a bygone era of terrorism.

We said that a fictional terrorist attack warranted "thinking out of the box" and that it would be a good thing to examine the civil contingency efforts of government since the events of 11 September 2001, particularly because every senior official and politician with any interest in terrorism had warned that such an attack was likely. Testing those efforts could best be done by creating some kind of mock spectacular.

We told them our scenario centred on a series of suicide bombs on the London Underground followed by a chlorine tanker exploding in the East End of London.

They said they were unlikely to help us if we insisted on this "irresponsible" scenario. They said it would give ideas to the terrorists because terrorists watch television. They said they would need to talk to their bosses - the politicians - to gauge their view but it was unlikely their view would be markedly different.

We tried to assure them that, as the BBC's flagship current affairs programme, we were far from irresponsible. They would not be moved. We agreed to go away and review our scenario in the light of their reservations.

We prepared a meticulous document which outlined the reasons why we had chosen this particular scenario. We got in touch with the Cabinet Office and arranged a second meeting where we hoped we could raise some of our research with them to show that there was nothing irresponsible about our actions.

On the morning of the meeting, I received a phone call from the Cabinet Office to say that, given that we were refusing to move from our proposed scenario, there was no purpose to the meeting. I demurred, and said the research was valuable and deserved proper debate. They were not persuaded.

Without meeting them again, we were constantly aware of the presence of the Cabinet Office. We would call the press office of any one of the myriad organisations officially involved with civil contingencies. As soon as we identified ourselves, the conversation came to a close.

One or two of the less discreet officials in these organisations revealed an email had been sent by "senior Government officials" telling them not to co-operate with this "irresponsible" Panorama. They were thorough in their mailing. No matter which office or organisation we turned to for advice or information, our way was barred.

In our research, none of the experts we spoke to, including police, politicians and intelligence, used the word "irresponsible". Instead the consensus emerged that raising public awareness about the difficulties of contingency planning and the gaps that exist in that planning was a worthwhile project.

Naturally the lack of official co-operation made our research more complicated but it failed to stop us. Enough people officially and unofficially wanted to help. They talked to us, shared concerns, showed us documents and told us where the gaps were.

When, in March, we put questions to the Home Office it refused to answer them. Although there was still no Government co-operation, we decided to submit an early request for an interview with the Home Secretary.

When filming was complete, we finalised our request for an interview with David Blunkett. The Home Office said that the request would be put to him provided a number of conditions could be satisfied. For example, the Home Office wanted to see a rough cut of the programme and wanted a guarantee that nobody would be interviewed after Mr Blunkett. We told them that these sorts of conditions were not normally adopted at the BBC. Our request for an interview was declined by the Home Secretary "on behalf of the Government".

We did not set out to do battle with this Government. Our aim was to engage with it and the many others involved in preparing for a terror attack to show the strengths and the weaknesses of emergency planning.

Never has the public been more entitled to know what might happen if we are attacked because warnings of an attack have never been more clear. In programme-making, we sometimes fool ourselves that important stories are matters of life and death. This time, it's true. Simply wanting to tell that story cannot be "irresponsible".

'Panorama: London Under Attack', produced by Susan O'Keeffe, tonight, 10.15 pm BBC1