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
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Buyer / Planner

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity has ar...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Manager

£40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity working ...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Journals Manager

£33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The prime focus of the role is to assist...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

Day In a Page

Giants Club: After wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, Uganda’s giants flourish once again

Uganda's giants are flourishing once again

After the wholesale butchery of Idi Amin's regime, elephant populations are finally recovering
The London: After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

After 350 years, the riddle of Britain's exploding fleet is finally solved

Archaeologists will recover a crucial item from the wreck of the London which could help shed more light on what happened in the vessel's final seconds
Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

Airbus has patented a jet that could fly from London to New York in one hour

The invention involves turbojets and ramjets - a type of jet engine - and a rocket motor
10 best sun creams for kids

10 best sun creams for kids

Protect delicate and sensitive skin with products specially formulated for little ones
Tate Sensorium: New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art

Tate Sensorium

New exhibition at Tate Britain invites art lovers to taste, smell and hear art
Ashes 2015: Nice guy Steven Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

Nice guy Finn is making up for lost time – and quickly

He was man-of-the-match in the third Test following his recall to the England side
Ashes 2015: Remember Ashton Agar? The No 11 that nearly toppled England

Remember Ashton Agar?

The No 11 that nearly toppled England
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks