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Labour says other leaders should join Major interview


Political Correspondent

Labour yesterday called on the BBC to invite other political leaders to join John Major on his "40-minute platform" on next Monday's controversial Panorama programme, after it emerged that the Prime Minister was also scheduled to appear on a BBC1 chat show this morning.

Chris Smith, Labour's national heritage spokesman, wrote to Tony Hall, BBC managing director of news and current affairs, complaining: "It is obvious to me that balance is being eroded, particularly given that the BBC rescheduled an edition of Panorama on Westminster Council in the run- up to last year's local elections on the grounds that impartiality was required."

In a separate letter to Mr Hall, Alastair Campbell, press secretary to Tony Blair, the Labour leader, said the BBC was at risk of breaking producers' guidelines in the election period before next Thursday's Scottish local elections.

A spokesperson for Panorama's publicity section said: "We believe that in the local elections for Scotland, England and Wales that we will have provided balanced coverage across a range of our programmes, as we have undertaken to do in our producers' guidelines."

Labour sources said the corporation's response failed to take account of guideline 3.5, which states: "It is not sufficient to claim that other unconnected programmes or media will ensure that balancing views will be heard." Labour insisted the BBC's planned coverage of the 29 April special conference on Clause IV, a few days before the 4 May local elections in England and Wales, was a news event in an entirely different category.

The political row intensified after the leak of a highly sensitive internal memorandum questioning how the corporation could defend the Panorama interview so close to the day Scottish voters went to the polls.

The note was drawn up by Nick Robinson, the programme's deputy editor and a former chairman of the Young Conservatives. The BBC emphasised that the memo pre-dated weekend claims by Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that it had become the "Blair Broadcasting Corporation".

Mr Major's appearance on today's Good Morning programme follows an invitation to leaders of the three main parties last autumn. He agreed to appear some weeks ago, though he only confirmed a definite date last Friday, shortly after he accepted the request from Panorama for Monday night's interview.