Another View: Balanced in the extreme

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The Independent Online
It is fortunate for Scotland's opposition party leaders that they were not required to give evidence in support of their motion to the Court of Session to have last night's Panorama interview with John Major blocked at the border. Perjury puts politicians in pokey.

For Labour's Scottish Affairs spokesman, George Robertson, to have kept a straight face, as he complained in a witness box that John Major's 40- minute earnest guide to world trouble spots gave the Tories an advantage in Thursday's Scottish local elections, would have earned him a Channel 4 comedy series.

The Panorama brouhaha has drawn more attention to the Scottish local elections than the parties have succeeded in doing. This will almost certainly mean more people turning out to vote against the Government. Labour, Lib Dem and SNP are laughing all the way to the ballot box, and the joke's on the BBC.

If the BBC's programme editors and producers forbade their clever-clogs reporters from treating every political story as a part of a continuous general election campaign, they would be in a stronger position to argue the wholly defensible journalistic duty of interviewing the Prime Minister about his national and international responsibilities - even while local politicians are engaged in an election campaign.

The broadcasting convention that during an election period party leaders' studio appearances must be "balanced" in everything except the Eurovision Song Contest can be taken to ludicrous extremes. The BBC guidelines are intended to be applied with sensitivity, journalistic integrity and viewers' boredom thresholds in mind. If John Major or Tony Blair are commenting on anything from Irish fishing limits to affairs in Bosnia, those comments should not count as part of the local election coverage. And viewers/voters aren't so stupid as not to understand the difference.

But through its over-zealous adherence to the conventions of even-handedness, the BBC has now got itself into real trouble. At the last minute, it tried to tough out its decision to show Panorama, ignoring the imminence of the Scottish elections. Lord Abernethy had a point yesterday when he implied that this insensitivity would not have arisen south of the border.

What the BBC should have done was this: as soon it had decided to show the prime ministerial interview, it should have announced that fact, instead of leaving itself open to leaked memos - and giving politicians an opportunity to make mischief and to remind broadcasters who sets the licence fee.

This judgment could yet free the BBC from the strait-jacket of covering all elections as though they are an opinion poll on the government. The BBC should take the chance to fine-tune the guidelines.so that reporting can reflect the different concerns of local and central government. That should contribute to a healthier democracy andmight help to stop voters switching off politics altogether.

The writer is a broadcaster and former Scottish National Party MP.

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