The BBC was forced to abandon plans to screen last night's Panorama interview with John Major in Scotland after a judge ruled the programme breached the corporation's impartiality rules. It is the first time a scheduled interview with a politician has been banned by the courts.
In the Court of Session in Edinburgh, Lord Abernethy rejected arguments by BBC managers that the decision to screen the interview three days before the Scottish local elections did not breach their duty to provide balanced coverage in the run-up to the poll. His decision was upheld by the Scottish Court of Appeal just minutes before the programme was due to go on air.
Last night viewers south of Northumberland and in Wales saw Mr Major's interview. In the far north, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which are all served by the same transmitters, it was replaced by a documentary.
The BBC's decision to appeal against Lord Abernethy's ruling provoked fury among Scottish Labour MPs. George Robertson, the Shadow Scottish secretary, said he would seek an urgent meeting with senior BBC officials over what he described as the corporation's "outrageous display of petulance . . . in dragging judges from their homes to hear an appeal with just minutes to go before transmission."
Granting an interim interdict banning transmission until after Thursday's poll, Lord Abernethy said the 40-minute interview was "not just any old programme" but "an extended interview" with the leader of one of the four main parties in Scotland.
The BBC's decision to screen it as the election campaign north of the border reaches its climax, with no plans "to give similar air time to the leaders of the other parties", breached the corporation's duty of broadcasting impartiality that is enshrined in its licence and in its internal guidelines.
The court heard Andrew Hardie QC, for the Scottish Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, dismiss as "naive" arguments by BBC managers that the interview would not influence the elections because it covered "national and international, not local matters".
For the BBC, James Taylor argued that Labour and the LibDems had failed to show that the BBC's coverage had been "unbalanced" throughout the three- week campaign.
Last night, Tony Hall, the BBC's managing director of News and Current Affairs, dismissed Lord Abernethy's ruling as "narrow" and "risible". The BBC would seek leave to appeal to the House of Lords and planned to show the programme in Scotland tonight.
But a former controller of BBC Scotland welcomed the decison. Patrick Chalmers, who stepped down in 1992, said Lord Abernethy's decision represented "proof that John Birt and his London-based cronies have damaged the integrity of BBC journalism and marginalised Scotland."
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