Panorama: the case for showing it

Equal air time can be no guarantee of fair reporting during election campaigns, writes Tony Hall
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The Independent Online
CONTRARY to popular belief, the courts in Scotland have not yet returned a verdict on the BBC: neither "guilty" nor even "not proven". The issue at stake was the extent and nature of the BBC's obligations to impartiality. The courts decided last week that the arguments could not be fully and properly tested before local elections took place in Scotland. Therefore, the Panorama programme at the heart of the debate should not be transmitted.

We believed we were right to plan our interview with John Major, even though the Scottish local election campaign was under way. But I freely confess the decision was one of the more difficult programming ones of recent years. We considered carefully before reaching it.

Politics do not come to a halt at local election time. Parliament continues, unlike at a general election. So does government, and at full tilt. Similarly, opposition continues. The affairs of the European Union go on uninterrupted and Britain continues to play her part in the wider world. All of that means politics, and lots of it.

Hardly a month goes by when there isn't an election, or a by-election, being fiercely fought somewhere or other at national, regional or local level. Our national broadcasting of news, views, information and analysis cannot be continually circumscribed beyond what is necessary and proper to balance our coverage of the campaign itself and of campaign issues.

Nor should we restrict our reporting simply to marking events. Throughout the rest of the year the BBC is in the business of discussing, testing and examining political argument. Election times should be no different. That is why Tony Blair was on Today last Saturday, with no scheduled "right of reply" from John Major. It is why ministers, opposition spokesmen and third party representatives appeared frequently across our programmes without reference to the recent campaign in Scotland or, in the next few weeks, in England and Wales.

The chance to test a prime minister at length comes but rarely. Panorama had sought an interview with John Major for some months. No broadcaster can command party leaders to appear on its programmes. We can only invite them. Sometimes they say yes readily; sometimes they say no; sometimes they say they will fit it in when they can. Naturally they will try to choose a time that suits them best. Our task is to decide whether the time suits us, and in this case, that was an unusually difficult decision.

We decided on the interview before Jonathan Aitken made his speech against the BBC. The interview was available on the eve of John Major's trip to Washington, at a time of another slump in Anglo-American relations. It was to be our first chance since the general election to interview him for 40 minutes about the Euro rebels and the months of party squabbling over Europe; about the public uproar over the money paid to bosses of privatised industries; about people's fears for the health service and for the standard of education, and more besides. These are questions which the whole country needs to see addressed to the Prime Minister, at the earliest opportunity. No newspaper or broadcaster would turn down such an opportunity.

Far from being oblivious to "the Scottish problem", it was the only serious reservation we had to consider before agreeing that the interview would take place. That we did address it is evidenced by the internal memo leaked before the interview itself was even announced.

Our colleagues at BBC Scotland took additional measures of their own to ensure that all four party leaders in Scotland were given a chance on BBC1 to air campaign issues in a 40-minute programme the night after the Prime Minister's interview was to have been broadcast there. That programme went ahead.

By going to court last week, the opposition parties have brought a step nearer the day when political programming in Britain is determined by a strict arithmetical formula: equal time for each party. We at the BBC have never believed that that guarantees fairness in reporting. What factors do you take into account? Minutes, size of audience, time of day, whether the interview was on a subject that the party deems a strength or on an aspect that their opponents were attacking? These are only some of the complex issues we weigh up all the time, especially during election campaigns. Is this an area where the courts should determine our programming?

If it were eventually determined that the courts have jurisdiction in deciding programme content and timing, the parties will undoubtedly try to use them. And not just at election times: the BBC's Charter obligations and those imposed upon ITV by the Broadcasting Act apply the whole year round.

What we could face, if the courts go down this slope, is political programming in which every studio interviewee is accompanied by three or four others, or every programme followed by three or four more just like it. And why stop at the mainstream parties? Screaming Lord Sutch has the same legal standing as any other party leader. And why stop at political parties? Every pressure group, every concerned citizen, might like to have his day in court and bend the ear of the judge. The Freedom Association has already threatened just such action.

What we tried to do last week was to make a judgement about the contending issues fairly; interviewing the Prime Minister with rigour on issues of UK-wide importance; balancing our network coverage of the Scottish elections; and ensuring additional opportunities for all the parties to broadcast within Scotland.

We not only recognise that the BBC has a clear obligation to political impartiality. We cherish that obligation. It serves as a foundation for the BBC's resilience under pressure. It enables us to withstand the encroachment of over-assertive politicians of whatever party. As election fever mounts, we will need to cling to this obligation. As the politicians' survival instinct takes over, all parties begin to apply pressure on the broadcasters - through public statements and off-the-record briefings, through monitoring and totting up our output, and through the well-tried mechanism of "heavy duty" phone calls from the party publicity machines.

Fortunately, our own staff and the rest of the media are alert to the slightest sign of the BBC faltering under pressure. We must not do so. We must do our best to make difficult judgements in an atmosphere of bitter political division.

The author is managing director, BBC news and current affairs.