BBC accused of being 'scared of Tories'

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The Independent Online
The BBC faces a fresh row over "political pusillanimity" after withdrawing a woman trade unionist from Question Time at the last minute.

Lynn Collins, a rising star in the Society of Radiographers, was due to take part in the television show last Thursday. It was her first appearance, and choosing her was part of the producers' campaign to have more women on the programme.

But the BBC hierarchy, nervous about the political balance of a show going out on the day of the crucial Barnsley East by-election that cost John Major his parliamentary majority, dropped her from the line-up.

Ms Collins, equality officer for her union, was judged "too Labour", though she is not a member of the Labour Party. Her union only recently affiliated to the Trades Union Congress, and is not affiliated to the Labour Party. Friends describe her as "a progressive women activist" whose views conflict with Labour on some issues.

Her impending appearance was announced the previous week on Question Time, but days later she was informed by letter that she had been vetoed.

Ms Collins's place was taken by Peter Hitchens, the outspoken right-wing columnist of the Daily Express. Mr Hitchens was once allied with the ultra- left Socialist Workers' Party.

He was joined on the programme by Liz Lynne, the Liberal Democrats' social services spokesman; Roger Freeman, the Public Services Minister also responsible for co-ordinating the Government's information strategy; and deputy Labour leader John Prescott.

Fellow-members of the pressure group SWOMP (Socialist Women on Male-Only Platforms) who had organised a party in London to watch Ms Collins's appearance are furious. "This is political pusillanimity of the highest order," said one. "If the BBC can just dump Lynn Collins like this, it shows they are running scared of the Tories."

BBC insiders pointed out that the political line-up of Question Time could not possibly have had any bearing on the outcome of the Barnsley East by-election. The show went out on air at 10.55pm - almost an hour after the polls had closed. The decision, they argued, was based on fears that the Tories would complain about being outnumbered three-to-one on the popular current affairs programme.

The new row follows revelations of a concerted Tory campaign to influence the BBC's choice of audience participants on Question Time.

Radio 4's Today programme yesterday disclosed that Bob Reid, a senior Scottish Conservative Party official, had written to all "media monitors" and "letter-writing group co-ordinators" urging them to inundate the BBC with complaints about the "anti-Tory audience bias" in the Question Time screened from Glasgow last month.

His memo said: "On this occasion we can write either as outraged Tories, complaining openly about the injustice of it all, or as non-partisan viewers anxious that we weren't seeing a complete picture."

Sir Michael Hirst, Scottish Conservative Party chairman, denied this encouraged deceit.

But Harvey Thomas, Tory communications supremo during the Eighties, demurred. "There is a question-mark because it suggests you can be honest or a little more discreet, if not dishonest."

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