How the courts silenced the BBC

David Aaronovitch describes how the Great Game - bashing the Beeb - went wrong, with sinister implications
Three weeks ago, Tony Hall, chief of the BBC's News and Current Affairs, and Tim Gardam, head of Current Affairs, went to No 10 for a liaison lunch with Christopher Meyer, the PM's press secretary. The two executives pointed out to Meyer that, despite repeated requests, the Prime Minister had not appeared on Panorama, outside the period of the general election, since taking office in November 1990. Was it not time that he came on?

Within days they had their answer - John Major would do a head-to-head with David Dimbleby for the 3 April Panorama, pre-recorded the day before.

Pleasure at this coup was tempered by concern at the timing. It was known that the PM was making himself available for a number of media appearances (including a sofa scene on Good Morning ... Anne and Nick, the BBC's daytime show). It was clear that the Tories had planned a media offensive to coincide with the Government's "Britain in the World" conference and Major's trip to the US. There was a little agonising, but by the end of the week of 18 March it had been decided that, since all such encounters tend to be arranged at the convenience of the interviewee, the interview should go ahead. No alternative date was discussed with No 10.

One of those consulted at this stage was David Jordan, editor of the political programme On The Record and the BBC's acting chief political adviser. It is his job to liaise with the ever-fractious political parties and to help to interpret the BBC's obligations, especially at election times. Jordan, a former union researcher with excellent links to the Labour Party, raised the issue of the Scottish local elections. His concern was that, although the leaders of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats had both recently appeared on On The Record and Major might now be about to take part in Panorama, the Scottish Nationalists had not had their crack of the whip. Within days Alex Sal-mond had appeared on Breakfast with Frost.

Panorama's deputy editor, Nick Robinson, himself a former Heathite chairman of the Young Conservatives, then took charge. He wrote a memo, subsequently leaked to the press, to Tim Gardam. A veteran of previous Panorama rows, Robinson realised there would be criticism of the timing of the interview. He wanted to get all the bigwigs, who might be involved in fending off any such assaults, singing from the same songsheet. Two days later, Jonathan Aitken unleashed his attack on John Humphrys and the "Blair Broadcasting Corporation".

By the time the senior management of BBC News and Current Affairs met for their fortnightly "Direction Group" on 28 March, the worst was over. Most newspapers, including pro-Tory ones, were backing the BBC. It had been an unpleasant experience, but they had survived. What, though, should they do about Panorama and John Major?

Some managers felt that the interview should not go ahead. The Robinson memo was an unpleasant reminder of the controversy to come and the Scots were bound to be bloody. Relations between BBC Scotland and the rest of the corporation mirrored the disgruntlement of the Scots body politic with London rule. It would be better to avoid causing offence.

Others disagreed. They had already successfully seen off one lot of political pressure, so why not another? And they did not want to jeopardise such a rare opportunity to quiz the Prime Minister. Finally, since it was unlikely that the interview would touch on areas relating to Scottish local government, it was thoroughly defensible.

The BBC's own bible, the Producer's Guidelines, was little help to either side. This famous document, compendious to a fault, lays down a series of do's and don'ts for producers and editors. Guideline 3.2, page 108, deals with election campaigns thus: "The BBC undertakes to maintain balance, over the period of a campaign, in its recorded actuality of political speeches and in film, videotape and studio contributions from politicians."

This is fine for general elections. Ministers are no longer members of the government, taking initiatives or answerable for events. But during council elections or by-elections, they continue to hold office. So it would be impossible, in practice, to do the journalistic job of covering the news.

The trouble is that the guidelines do not state that local election campaigns are exempted. They do, however, contain the important proviso that balance must be maintained "over the period of the campaign". So if Major was on Panorama, Blair on the Today programme, Ashdown on On The Record and Salmond on Frost, all, arguably, might be well. This interpretation prevailed in the argument within the BBC. Major would come on.

Meanwhile, Labour was cockahoop at the Tory attack on the BBC. Its spin- doctors were busy phoning around trying to keep the story going, while publicly its spokespeople expressed concern at how the BBC might react to its savaging. By last Wednesday Tony Blair's press secretary, Alastair Campbell, was aware of the Robinson memo, which appeared in Thursday's papers, giving the row another twist. Chris Smith, Labour's mild heritage spokesman, wrote to Tony Hall, expressing concern about the interview taking place "three days before the Scottish local elections and only four weeks before those in England and Wales".

The BBC thought it was being bluffed. Privately, some Labour people were letting it be known that this was all part of the Great Game - if the Tories were going to bash the Beeb, then they had better do some counter- bashing just to insure against a corporation cave-in. The word that the corporation was getting was that it would all blow over. Meanwhile, the BBC would have to turn as robust a face to Labour as it had shown the Tories. Tony Hall replied to Smith, insisting that the show had to go on.

At this point something went very wrong. Labour claims that the BBC failed to understand the depth of its anger on the issue. But there is some suggestion that at the end of last week the Labour Party in Scotland scented that their own Sassenachs were too willing to let the matter lapse after a ritual exchange, and hijacked the campaign against the interview. All of a sudden it was those barnyard bruisers Robin Cook and George Robertson who were doing the talking, not the effete London duo of Chris Smith and Alastair Campbell.

At that stage it was probably too late for either side to retreat. The BBC's advice was that it would "almost certainly" win in the Scottish courts. In fact, it lost three times. What emerged was the full scale of the dislike in Scotland of the way in which the BBC in London interpreted the rules - a feeling encompassing courts, politicians and journalists.

The effects of the judgment are incalculable. A new confidence that was becoming discernible in the BBC will now shrivel, with judgement being replaced by a constant anxiety about what MPs, judges or executives will say about this or that decision. Any tuppenny hapenny group with an axe to grind may now feel emboldened to grind it in front of m'lud. What Jonathan Aitken and the Tories failed to accomplish, the BBC and Labour have now brought about.