The BBC has shelved a Panorama documentary about the business affairs of the Tory billionaire Lord Ashcroft, because of a threat of legal action.
The Corporation has received what one insider described as "several very heavy letters" from Lord Ashcroft's lawyers. There is now little or no prospect of the investigation being broadcast before the general election, if it goes out at all.
The hold-up will delight David Cameron's campaign team, who had been trying to pressure the BBC into delaying the programme until after the general election. But sources inside the Corporation firmly deny that political pressure played a part in keeping the programme off the air, attributing the delay solely to the risk of legal action.
The Tories are anxious to suppress more publicity about Lord Ashcroft's affairs after the outcry earlier this month when the Tory billionaire belatedly revealed that he is not domiciled in the UK for tax purposes, and so pays no tax on his huge overseas assets.
The revelation that Lord Ashcroft is a "non-dom" has prompted two separate committee hearings in Parliament into the circumstances under which he was awarded a peerage, both of which are being held today.
Panorama sent a team to Belize and to the Turks and Caicos Islands, where Lord Ashcroft has business interests, to interview businessmen and politicians. Those interviewed included the Prime Minister of Belize, Dean Barrow, a former ally turned critic of Lord Ashcroft; and Shaun Malcolm, a former chairman of the opposition in the Turks and Caicos. The team was led by James Oliver, an experienced BBC journalist.
Plans to broadcast the programme this month provoked furious protests from Conservative headquarters. Senior Tories fired off letters of protest to the director-general of the BBC, Mark Thompson, and the chairman of the BBC Trust, Sir Michael Lyons. They objected that it was unfair to broadcast a programme on such a sensitive topic in the run-up to a general election.
But neither the director-general nor the Trust has intervened to block the programme, sources inside the BBC insisted. One said: "If the programme doesn't go out before the general election, it has nothing to do with the Conservatives. It's to do with whether it's legally clearable." Another said: "Things take time when you are dealing with offshore finances. It's easy to jump to the conclusion that this is connected to the general election, but the main priority is to make sure the programme goes out in a form in which you are sure it is right. It's an amazingly difficult area."
A spokesman for Lord Ashcroft said it was "hardly a revelation" that the peer's lawyers had contacted the BBC over the Panorama programme. He added: "We shall watch this space."
Lord Ashcroft is taking legal action against The Independent over two reports on his business interests in the Turks and Caicos.
No one from Panorama was available for comment, but a BBC spokesman said: "The programme is not on the schedule at the moment. We do not know when it will be aired."
Michael Ashcroft is deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. He is also the party's biggest single financial backer, through his company Bearwood Corporate Services.
He was nominated for a peerage in 1999 by William Hague, who was then leader of the Conservative Party, but was rejected by the Honours Scrutiny Committee, because he lived abroad. The peerage was granted in 2000, after Mr Ashcroft gave Mr Hague a written promise that he would become a UK resident. For the next nine years, he refused to answer questions about whether he was a UK taxpayer, until his hand was forced by a Freedom of Information request submitted by the Labour MP Gordon Prentice. "It's very disappointing the BBC has pulled the plug on this programme. It's of immense public interest," Mr Prentice said yesterday.
The Commons Public Administration Committee will today hear evidence from Baroness Dean, a Labour peer who was a member of the scrutiny committee that first blocked and then approved Michael Ashcroft's peerage, and Sir Hayden Phillips, who was the senior civil servant involved. But the hearing has been weakened because the three Conservative members are refusing to take part.
A committee of the House of Lords that looks into members' interests will also meet today to consider a complaint from a Labour MP, Martin Linton, that Lord Ashcroft had failed to observe a rule that requires peers to act in their "personal honour".
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