Ashcroft's lawyers silence 'Panorama'

The BBC has shelved a Panorama documentary about the business affairs of the Tory billionaire Lord Ashcroft, because of a threat of legal action.

The Corporation has received what one insider described as "several very heavy letters" from Lord Ashcroft's lawyers. There is now little or no prospect of the investigation being broadcast before the general election, if it goes out at all.

The hold-up will delight David Cameron's campaign team, who had been trying to pressure the BBC into delaying the programme until after the general election. But sources inside the Corporation firmly deny that political pressure played a part in keeping the programme off the air, attributing the delay solely to the risk of legal action.

The Tories are anxious to suppress more publicity about Lord Ashcroft's affairs after the outcry earlier this month when the Tory billionaire belatedly revealed that he is not domiciled in the UK for tax purposes, and so pays no tax on his huge overseas assets.

The revelation that Lord Ashcroft is a "non-dom" has prompted two separate committee hearings in Parliament into the circumstances under which he was awarded a peerage, both of which are being held today.

Panorama sent a team to Belize and to the Turks and Caicos Islands, where Lord Ashcroft has business interests, to interview businessmen and politicians. Those interviewed included the Prime Minister of Belize, Dean Barrow, a former ally turned critic of Lord Ashcroft; and Shaun Malcolm, a former chairman of the opposition in the Turks and Caicos. The team was led by James Oliver, an experienced BBC journalist.

Plans to broadcast the programme this month provoked furious protests from Conservative headquarters. Senior Tories fired off letters of protest to the director-general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, and the chairman of the BBC Trust, Sir Michael Lyons. They objected that it was unfair to broadcast a programme on such a sensitive topic in the run-up to a general election.

But neither the director-general nor the Trust has intervened to block the programme, sources inside the BBC insisted. One said: "If the programme doesn't go out before the general election, it has nothing to do with the Conservatives. It's to do with whether it's legally clearable." Another said: "Things take time when you are dealing with offshore finances. It's easy to jump to the conclusion that this is connected to the general election, but the main priority is to make sure the programme goes out in a form in which you are sure it is right. It's an amazingly difficult area."

A spokesman for Lord Ashcroft said it was "hardly a revelation" that the peer's lawyers had contacted the BBC over the Panorama programme. He added: "We shall watch this space."

Lord Ashcroft is taking legal action against The Independent over two reports on his business interests in the Turks and Caicos.

No one from Panorama was available for comment, but a BBC spokesman said: "The programme is not on the schedule at the moment. We do not know when it will be aired."

Michael Ashcroft is deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. He is also the party's biggest single financial backer, through his company Bearwood Corporate Services.

He was nominated for a peerage in 1999 by William Hague, who was then leader of the Conservative Party, but was rejected by the Honours Scrutiny Committee, because he lived abroad. The peerage was granted in 2000, after Mr Ashcroft gave Mr Hague a written promise that he would become a UK resident. For the next nine years, he refused to answer questions about whether he was a UK taxpayer, until his hand was forced by a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Labour MP Gordon Prentice. "It's very disappointing the BBC has pulled the plug on this programme. It's of immense public interest," Mr Prentice said yesterday.

The Commons Public Administration Committee will today hear evidence from Baroness Dean, a Labour peer who was a member of the scrutiny committee that first blocked and then approved Michael Ashcroft's peerage, and Sir Hayden Phillips, who was the senior civil servant involved. But the hearing has been weakened because the three Conservative members are refusing to take part.

A committee of the House of Lords that looks into members' interests will also meet today to consider a complaint from a Labour MP, Martin Linton, that Lord Ashcroft had failed to observe a rule that requires peers to act in their "personal honour".

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Books should be for everyone, says Els, 8. Publisher Scholastic now agrees
booksAn eight-year-old saw a pirate book was ‘for boys’ and took on the publishers
Life and Style
Mary Beard received abuse after speaking positively on 'Question Time' about immigrant workers: 'When people say ridiculous, untrue and hurtful things, then I think you should call them out'
tech
Life and Style
Most mail-order brides are thought to come from Thailand, the Philippines and Romania
life
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Voices
Margaret Thatcher, with her director of publicity Sir Gordon Reece, who helped her and the Tory Party to victory in 1979
voicesThe subject is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for former PR man DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
2015 General Election
May2015

Poll of Polls

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Cancer Research UK: Corporate Partnerships Volunteer Events Coordinator – London

Voluntary: Cancer Research UK: We’re looking for someone to support our award ...

Ashdown Group: Head of IT - Hertfordshire - £90,000

£70000 - £90000 per annum + bonus + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: H...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions