A victory for the thin-skinned

The Panorama squabble promotes a mentality that ignores a need for more quality political debate

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What is all this? To witness the banning of a dull interview with the Prime Minister was to feel that Britain had taken another step towards banana monarchy status. Has there ever been a less likely addition to the annals of public censorship? Terrorist manuals, the voices of IRA men, child pornography ... and now, er, John Major on share option schemes.

It was hardly as if this was a piece of brilliant political propaganda. The BBC, perhaps trying to cover its back, introduced the interview with a series of cruel pictures of Major looking glum, and footage that implied: here's a pretty dreary fellow who has made a monumental bog of things, so let's hear what he has to say for himself. The interview was conducted in a sepulchral half-light in an empty cabinet room at slow speed, and the Prime Minister was dreadful.

Lucky Scotland. From a couch potato's viewpoint, the only mystery was that the injunction against the programme was sought by opposition parties. Had I been a Scottish Tory, I would have been round at the Edinburgh home of Lord Hope, banging frantically on the door to get the thing stopped as grossly unfair to my party ahead of local elections.

Some people may have been confused by hearing David Hunt, the cabinet minister for hyperbole, declaring on the Today programme that the interview had been highly impressive and had set the agenda. The answer to that conundrum, at least, is mundane: Hunt had been watching the wrong channel and caught Lionel Bart on the Laurence Olivier awards by mistake.

Even Labour spokesmen were hard put to keep a straight face while arguing that the Panorama programme had been a piece of clever Conservative sneakiness. It was the principle of the thing, they kept saying.

What principle? We must do some disentangling, for two principles are involved, and they are in conflict. There is, first, the principle that pre-election periods are special, and impose special duties of scrupulous balance on the BBC, alongside the complex rules laid down by the Representation of the People Act.

No one disagrees that this is so - for general election campaigns. But what about local elections, which are of course far more numerous? The question came under the spotlight last April, when the corporation came under heavy Tory pressure to postpone another Panorama programme, that time on corruption at Westminster City Council.

The two cases are not the same, since that programme was more intimately connected to the relevant elections themselves. Even so, Labour, Lib Dem and SNP protests about ``gagging'' and political pressure then are eerily reminiscent of Tory squealing this week.

Yet even the opposition cannot believe that any Scottish voters, other than a couple of bewildered eccentrics in a sunset home near Nairn, would have changed their local vote as a result of the Panorama interview. Indeed, they barely try to argue that it mattered.

So the anger is synthetic? Not quite: there is an element of Scotland scorned that is relevant, too, and it was the Scottish politicians who led the legal attack. Would the BBC have shown the interview just days ahead of the English local elections? I have my doubts. To that extent, the Court of Session's action was a salutary slap across the chops of the London establishment on behalf of Scottish identity. The glee north of the border at this is palpable and justified.

In the longer term, though, this hypersensitivity about coverage of national politics during local election campaigns is simply not sensible. It conflicts with the other public good, which is that we are entitled to serious and full discussion of politics on television and radio, organised by professional broadcasters, without them being bullied into nerveless immobility by screeching politicians, aides and spin-doctors.

Broadcast politics is bland enough and, frankly, intimidated enough already. News programmes are rendered almost unwatchable at times by the need to follow any two-bit ministerial announcement with the standard 40 seconds of Labour reaction, 25 seconds of Liberal Democrat reaction, 15 seconds of SNP and so on. What the viewers need is not more balance but more quality.

This case, if pushed to its logical conclusion, would produce an insane result. It implies that whenever a local election or by-election anywhere in the country is being contested, the BBC should balance political interviews in every single programme. If Paddy Ashdown is interviewed by the Today programme, then every other party leader must be, too, on the same day; and if the Prime Minister isn't available, then none of them can be. That is a ridiculous proposition, which the BBC must find some way of fighting on behalf of its journalists and, more importantly, its viewers and listeners.

Most politicians will admit this but then go on to explain that they ``must'' try to intimidate the BBC because the other guys do, particularly as they limber up for a general election. This row has been less about the Scottish local elections in 1995 than the next parliamentary elections in 1996-7. Ministerial attacks and a leaked Panorama memo last week suggested to the opposition that the Tories had successfully got their arm-twisting in first. So they counter-attacked. The opposition wasn't after fairness so much as equality of intimidation.

And had the BBC been bullied by the Conservatives? The tone of the leaked memorandum from a Panorama man to senior BBC executives about the timing of the interview sounded guilty. ``My suggestion is that we say [my italics] that we have had a bid in from the Prime Minister for several months. ...'' He also worried that the interview was ``bound to be written up as forming part of a Number Ten strategy to promote Major in advance of both the elections and the Easter recess''.

The BBC would not have chosen, one suspects, to bat on this particular wicket. But if the Prime Minister is offering himself to be grilled, is it really for the national broadcasting corporation to tell him to push off? (Though in the event, far from ``grilling'' him, the Big Dimbleby barely managed to raise the poor soul to room temperature.)

I believe, and I hope, that the opposition politicians who brought the case never quite believed it would go this far. As a one-off event, the interview would have had no effect whatever on the Scottish local elections. As part of the longer story of politicians' attempts to intimidate the corporation ahead of the general election, its banning was a clear victory for the opposition. But it was an ominous victory because it dragged in judges - a precedent the Conservatives will note - and it was ridiculous in its implications for broadcasting.

The time when the BBC's top brass stand outside Television Centre and formally complain that political harassment is making it impossible for them to do their jobs properly is, thank God, still a long way off. But this week, it came a little nearer.

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