Labour steps up `bias' row with BBC

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The Independent Online

Political Editor

Labour's public row with the BBC worsened last night as the party stepped up its pressure on the corporation to shelve a planned interview with John Major on Panorama on Monday night.

In a letter to Tony Hall, the BBC's managing director on news and current affairs, the party last night claimed that the BBC was "liable to judicial review" for breaching its impartiality undertakings if it went ahead with the 40-minute interview three days before the Scottish local elections.

The latest move came after Mr Hall said the corporation was standing by its plans to go ahead with the interview after Labour claimed that it was in breach of its "producers' guidelines" on the requirement to maintain "balance" during a campaign.

Labour continued to pressure the BBC after Mr Hall had made it clear that the interview would deal "with the range of government policies and its record on national and international issues not specific to local elections". Mr Hall, pointing out that the BBC had first bid for the interview last December, and that the Prime Minister had finally accepted last week, had added: "As with all our programmes we will carry out the task with rigour. Such programmes are at the centre of BBC journalism."

In a further letter last night, Mr Hall took issue with what he said was Labour's "misconception" about the guidelines, which in paragraph 3.2 say that 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".

Mr Hall said: "They are for guidance only and in no sense are they rules or undertakings except to the extent that they reproduce legal requirements. They also make no attempt to deal with every eventuality and consequently do not refer to interviews with any specific individual, the Prime Minister included."

But Labour, after taking legal advice, contested this again last night. In a further letter, Alastair Campbell, press secretary to the Labour leader, Tony Blair, referred to the BBC's licence agreement and the fact that annexed to it was an undertaking by the board of governors in 1964 to comply with standards similar to those "imposed by statute on the independent broadcasters". Labour claims the producers' guidelines specifically reflect that "undertaking".

The row initially broke out after the leaking of a memorandum from Nick Robinson, the deputy editor of Panorama, discussing putative defences against Opposition accusations that the interview was giving favourable treatment to Mr Major. The BBC dismissed Labour's original claims that it had bowed to Government pressure, pointing out that both the agreement to do the interview, and Mr Robinson's memo, dated from well before Jonathan Aitken's attack on the BBC. Mr Hall said that the leaked memo was "testimony to the fact that we recognise . . . our commitment to make sure we are fair and impartial", which he said would continue in coverage of local election campaigns.

Tories attack BBC, page 7