PM agrees to 'Newsnight' slot (with studio audience, please)

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The Independent Online

* A day after Jeremy Paxman traded insults with the Health Secretary, John "attack dog" Reid, there is news of another juicy row between Newsnight and the Labour Party machine.

* A day after Jeremy Paxman traded insults with the Health Secretary, John "attack dog" Reid, there is news of another juicy row between Newsnight and the Labour Party machine.

Tony Blair has agreed to appear on the BBC's flagship current affairs programme during the coming election campaign. And his media advisers are now involved in highly-fraught negotiations over the form this interview will take.

Pandora gathers that Newsnight would like Paxman, far right, to conduct a straight, analytical interview with the PM. Downing Street, however, is adamant that he'll only appear in front of a (preferably female) studio audience, in order to focus on "personality" issues.

Both sides are refusing to back down, but the BBC is confident it will eventually prevail: Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy have already signed-up for a one-on-one on the show, meaning Blair will be accused of "running scared" if he refuses to undergo similar scrutiny.

Conspiracy theorists now reckon Tuesday's row - which began when Reid took umbrage at being called an "attack dog" by Paxman - was part of an effort to flex political muscles at Newsnight.

"It doesn't make sense otherwise," says a BBC source. "After all, it's a bit bloody much for Paxo to be insulted with the foul accusation that he's got a PhD by a man who spent his entire political career as 'Dr' John Reid."

* Another day, another Hollywood superstar prepares to tread the boards in London's West End. Ashley Judd is in negotiations to appear in Burn This , a new play by Lanford Wilson which is scheduled to premiere in the autumn. Its producers will be Out of the Blue, who are also bringing Friends star David Schwimmer across the Atlantic next month.

"It's a black comedy about the stormy relationship between a man and a woman," says a spokesman for the firm.

"She's a fiery, passionate, southern girl, and Ashley fits the part perfectly. She's served her time on Broadway and it would be fantastic to have her in the West End."

Judd, who is best known for her role alongside Robert De Niro in Heat , may feel at home on this side of the Atlantic: her husband, the racing driver Dario Franchitti, hails from Edinburgh.

* Bob Geldof is a man of many parts. When he isn't campaigning for the developed world to "give us your effin' money", the knight of the realm is often to be found burying his nose in Keats.

On Monday, he'll pay tribute to his literary idol at a poetry reading organised by the novelist Josephine Hart at the British Museum. "We originally asked Bob to read Byron, but he insisted that Keats was his great passion," says an organiser. "He's known Josephine for quite a while, as they're both Irish."

There's also a political sub-plot to the proceedings: Hart is married to the Tory chairman, Maurice Saatchi, who'll be delighted to break bread with someone Labour would dearly love to call their own.

* Ken Livingstone is still trying to build bridges with the Jewish community after last month's hoo-ha over his "Nazi jibe".

The London Mayor's latest funding report reveals that he's spending £20,000 printing a book called Jewish London , which is billed as "a guide to Jewish cultural events" in the capital.

It's a kind gesture, but the critics still aren't happy. "Too little, too late, springs to mind," says one.

"To cap it all, the funding is signed off by the Mayor's senior adviser, Redmond O'Neill.

"He just happens to be responsible for bringing the anti-Semitic, homophobic Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi to City Hall last July."

* Last night, the BBC decided to invite MPs to a screening of the new Dr Who series. It was a hot ticket - until, that is, the Government decided to hold yet another debate on its draconian anti-terror Bill.

Several guests are reported to be "gutted", not least the Tory education spokesman, Tim Collins, a lifelong fan who has appeared on TV documentaries about the Time Lord.

"Terror debate or not, I'll be very surprised if Tim misses the screening," reckons a colleague. "As for the rest of us, we'll have to decide which is more important: the invasion of the Daleks, or the invasion of al-Qa'ida." Best leave it to your consciences, chaps.

pandora@independent.co.uk

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