TORY LEADERSHIP ELECTION: Prescott attacks BBC coverage

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The BBC was accused by the Labour Party yesterday of jeapordising its reputation for impartiality by giving Conservative politicians unlimited air-time to criticise Tony Blair's policies.

John Prescott, the deputy Labour leader, warned that the news coverage of the Tory leadership contest was in danger of becoming "infected by the frenzied atmosphere at Westminster rather than merely reflecting it."

In a letter to John Birt, director-general of the BBC, Mr Prescott said the corporation was "providing Tory politicians with hours of air time to say whatever they like about Labour".

As a result, he argued, its standards of scrutiny, balance and fairness were under threat. "When [Labour] party officials and others have sought to complain to the reporters or programmes concerned, at least two have been told we should not be complaining because all this coverage is damaging the Tories."

Mr Prescott continued: "That is not the point. The BBC has a duty to do more than reflect the internal machinations of the Tory party. It has a duty to cover politics in its entirety and is singularly failing to do so."

A spokesman for BBC News and Current Affairs last night rejected the criticism. "The Conservative Party leadership election is clearly a very important story which our viewers and listeners would expect us to cover thoroughly.

"We have been careful not to neglect the rest of the news agenda, for example giving time to Labour intitiatives on health and the economy."

But Labour is also furious that the corporation gave extensive coverage to a Times poll yesterday that gave John Major and the Tories an 8-point boost, having ignored numerous poll results pointing to a 30 per cent lead for Labour.