Tireless bloodhound on trail of `bias'

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The Independent Online
Last weekend's attack by Jonathan Aitken on the BBC bore all the fingerprints of Julian Lewis, deputy director of research at Tory Central Office. The counting-up of John Humphrys' interruptions, the disclosure of his presence at an education debate attended by opposition parties, smacked of Dr Lewis. For once, we were wrong: Mr Aitken's broadside was entirely his own work.

Well, not quite. Dr Lewis is close to John Bercow, Mr Aitken's new political adviser, and knew the minister's speech was coming. Dr Lewis is understood to have sent Mr Bercow a dossier on the Beeb, containing letters he has sent to John Birt, Director-General, and Michael Stevenson, secretary to the BBC governors.

Dr Lewis's main beef is not one programme or even programmes, or any presenter or interviewer. He maintains it is wrong for the BBC to try to insist a programme or item must be judged against the entire Corporation output. Over the past few months, he says, "I have been asking the BBC to accept that due impartiality should apply to specific programmes and not the entire output." It is ridiculous, he argues, to compare one peak-time programme, which may be very hostile, with the gamut of productions - some of which are barely heard or watched.

It is an old chestnut, whichDr Lewis raised repeatedly during the passing of the Broadcasting Act in 1990. At that time he ran the Media Monitoring Unit. In the mid-Eighties, a feeling of near paranoia gripped the Tory Establishment. The BBC's coverage, they felt, was stacked against them: Kate Adie's reporting on the US bombing raid on Libya; the Panorama programme "Maggie's Militant Tendency"; the Zircon spy satellite affair. Against this emotive backdrop, the tiny but extremely noisy monitoring unit was formed, to publicise perceived excesses. Document after document, always well-researched, winged its way around Westminster and Whitehall, pointing out, like for like, differences between the BBC and ITV.

Nobody is a more dogged pursuer of his victims than Dr Lewis. In the Eighties, he turned on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament with a vengeance, attacking its head, Bruce Kent, turning up to meetings to barrack, sending up spotter planes to gauge the size of crowds. Short and energetic, he talks nineteen to the dozen. The more anti-Tory the subject, the faster his delivery. Said to be closely allied to the right-wing US Heritage Foundation, Dr Lewis operates in a mysterious hinterland between mainstream party politics and minority groups.

When John Major was alleged by Scallywag, the satirical magazine, to have had a relationship with his cook, he settled for an apology. When Scallywag claimed Dr Lewis was behind a planned "dirty tricks" campaign against Tony Blair, he closed it down.

Mr Aitken can expect a steady supply of grenades from Dr Lewis to lob at the Corporation. And as the election nears, the media had better be on its toes. Last week, the Tories appointed a new PR chief, Hugh Colver from British Aerospace. At the same time, Dr Lewis dusted off his files and swung back into action. Expect more of the same.

Chris Blackhurst