BBC under fire for assuming Blair win

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Indy Politics
A Labour election victory is a built-in assumption for BBC news broadcasts, Brian Mawhinney, the Tory party chairman, said yesterday.

He told BBC television's Breakfast with Frost that he wanted to discuss with Tony Hall, chief executive of BBC News, the position of "active" Labour supporters within the organisation.

Dr Mawhinney cited the cases of Ben Bradshaw, a former presenter of Radio 4's The World this Weekend programme, who has been selected as Labour candidate in the marginal seat of Exeter while remaining on the BBC payroll, and Joy Johnson, former director of communications for the Labour Party, who had recently been reappointed to a BBC post.

"But there is also, I think, an issue to be discussed around what appears, from our point of view, too regularly to be an assumption that underlies the way BBC news broadcasts come across, of a Labour victory, as it were, predetermined," the party chairman said.

"And so, before we get into the real rush and bustle of an election, I think those are the sorts of thing that we need to sort out and I'm looking forward to having a chat with Tony Hall about them."

That "chat" will be underlined by the back-up threat of BBC privatisation, raised by Charles Lewington, the Conservatives' director of communications, who said yesterday: "The reality may well be that the BBC will never fully understand the market economy until it is part of it."

The Conservative attack on the BBC is part of the pre-election ritual, a softening-up exercise designed to harass the broadcasters into a more submissive, less critical attitude during the campaign.

Two former Tory ministers, Alan Clark and George Walden, both said yesterday that they saw no evidence of BBC bias. Mr Clark, the prospective Tory candidate for Kensington, told Sky's Sunday With Adam Boulton programme: "Basically, the corporation is completely neutral, I think."

Mr Walden told GMTV's Sunday programme that it was the news that was biased against the Tories, not the BBC. "If anything, I've noticed the BBC being a little bit tougher on Labour," he said.

Chris Smith, Labour's health spokesman, told the same programme: "It's absolutely ridiculous to say the BBC are biased in one direction or another."

Another element in the pre-election ritual - speculation about a head- to-head debate between the party leaders - was also raised over the weekend.

But as with speculation about the date of the election itself, Dr Mawhinney teased his interviewer, and the public, yesterday. Repeatedly asked by Sir David Frost about the chances of a debate, Dr Mawhinney said: "An election is about debating the issues.

"It's not about sound-bites, it's about having the leaders say, `Here are the issues that we want to put to the country,' and getting those thoroughly explored, and the media has its role in exploring those issues. That's what an election's about."

However, he also said: "The initiative has to lie with the media because there are legal responsibilities that they would have to address. They are not legal responsibilities for me.

"But if they want to come and produce something for me to look at, then of course we would look at them."