Leading Article: Keeping the BBC from timidity

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The Independent Online
Relations between the BBC and the political parties in the past have been governed by one of those unarticulated agreements so characteristic of the British way of doing things. Behind the scenes, politicians would rattle the corporation's cage whenever they saw the opportunity. BBC producers and executives, in London and throughout the country, would respond to complaints with an escalating tariff of mollifying words, placatory lunches and propitiatory offers of appearances on obscure mid-afternoon radio programmes before eventually - reluctantly - conceding any peak-time television airtime. Everyone complained and everyone was happy.

Now the courts have been brought in and the equation has changed. Yesterday Scotland's Court of Session refused the BBC leave to appeal directly to the House of Lords against a ruling that a Panorama interview with the Prime Minister could not be broadcast in Scotland before the local elections there tomorrow. The BBC has announced that it intends to pursue the matter by other avenues to the House of Lords to get a decision on whether such a programme should be permissible in similar circumstances in future.

Was the BBC right to want to broadcast? It is easy to see why it intended to. There was obvious news value in an interview with John Major just after the Conservatives' Birmingham conference on regaining the heart of Middle England and just before his trip to meet President Clinton in the United States. Conversely, there was characteristic metropolitan tactlessness in the way that BBC executives dismissed the suggestion that local events north of the border were of consequence in the decision. But the issue has now moved beyond such considerations.

Under law, government ministers can, in theory, exercise control over the output of the BBC. By an important act of restraint, they choose not to do so. In unspoken reciprocation, the broadcasters hold back, too; though strongly opposed for years to the Government's ban on Sinn Fein, the BBC (and ITV) refrained from a legal challenge because they did not want the courts to enter the process.

Pandora's box is now open. The quiet word from on high and the discreet lunching will no longer suffice. The courts are involved and the prospect is that they will become more so. In Britain today the courts are being used increasingly as mediators of what happens in important national institutions. In a democracy it is right that people should have such recourse. But in the case of politicians and the media it is also important that such rights should continue to be exercised with discretion.

For politicians to embark upon a spree of injunction-seeking could damage the process of democracy it is intended to protect. And it is not simply that the accumulation of legal precedents would invariably create loopholes through which Natural Law and Raving Loony candidates might creep. There is a balance to be struck between broadcasters committed by law to electoral impartiality and broadcasters intimidated into timidity. If the case does reach the House of Lords, the law lords should reflect that dimension in their judgment and rule in favour of the BBC.