Impartiality fear to force Apprentice change

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The Independent Online

The next series of The Apprentice could be rescheduled if a general election is called next spring because of Sir Alan Sugar's new role as a government adviser, it emerged today.

The 62-year-old entrepreneur took up a seat in the House of Lords on Monday and is the government's new "enterprise champion".

Critics said the dual role would compromise the BBC's political impartiality, and the corporation's governing body, the BBC Trust, said broadcasting the show in the run-up to an election could be seen as giving unfair publicity to the Labour Party.

To avoid undermining public confidence in the corporation, the BBC should give "due consideration to the implications of showing the programmes in the months immediately before a general election", Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons said.

The Conservatives had complained to the BBC that Lord Sugar's appointment could breach corporation rules on impartiality in the lead-up to the vote, which must be held by June 3 next year.

Sir Michael said it was important that the public had confidence in BBC impartiality and did not feel presenters' and programme makers' outside interests compromised their positions.

"The Committee notes that there is now less than a year before the next general election and that this increases the sensitivity caused by Lord Sugar's dual role," he said.

"Scheduling decisions are a matter for the Executive. But the Trust is clear that when scheduling next year's transmission of The Apprentice and Junior Apprentice the Executive must give due consideration to the implications of showing the programmes in the months immediately before a general election."

This year The Apprentice ran from March until early June, and the trust's editorial standards committee said Lord Sugar's role as a government adviser created a "greater than normal risk" to the corporation's impartiality.

But the committee ruled there was no inherent conflict of interest, providing that strict safeguards were followed.

Under guidelines set out by BBC management, the businessman, who officially became Baron Sugar of Clapton in the Borough of Hackney on Monday, may not campaign on behalf of the government, and must take care that his image is not used in campaigning material.

The committee said that for a period immediately after the announcement of Lord Sugar's peerage, there was a risk that public confidence in BBC impartiality could have been undermined.

A lack of clarity about the precise nature of his new role may have allowed the impression to form that the appointment would compromise the corporation's political independence, the committee ruled.

The committee also criticised BBC management over Lord Sugar's appearance at an event in Gateshead to promote the National Apprenticeship Service (NAS).

While apprenticeships enjoyed widespread support across parties, the committee said, the event should have been regarded as political activity and referred to the BBC executive for consent.

The Conservatives said they were still unhappy with Lord Sugar's dual role.

The shadow culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, said: "The BBC Trust has admitted what we have known all along, that Alan Sugar's Government appointment risks the impartiality, integrity and independence of the BBC.

"Whatever restrictions the BBC seeks to put on his political activities Lord Sugar is taking the Labour whip and has an official Government role.

"It's amazing that the Trust has therefore not explained why licence fee payers should fund a programme hosted by someone who will help formulate, promote, and endorse Government policies.

"The Trust has disappointingly missed an opportunity to show it has teeth when it comes to enforcing impartiality obligations."

A BBC spokesman said it had always taken particular care over party political fairness around elections.

"When elections are called or are clearly imminent, we review all of our schedules to ensure that our output is suitable for transmission during that period," the spokesman said.

"The Trust has emphasised that all scheduling decisions are a matter for the BBC Executive. However, the Executive has noted the Trust's clear view on the particular sensitivity of broadcasting The Apprentice during an election period.

"If the next general election falls in the first part of 2010, the Executive will of course bear the Trust's view in mind when it considers when to transmit the next series of The Apprentice."