BBC in fight with government

Labour spin doctor sparks disagreement

LONDON — A row between the BBC and the U.K.’s new coalition government has broken out over alleged political interference.

The spat, the first since the new administration came to power earlier this month, involves the selection of panelists for the high-profile BBC public affairs show, “Question Time,” in which politicians and public figures field questions from citizens.

The government, which is normally represented on the “Question Time” panel, refused to participate in an edition broadcast Thursday unless the BBC dropped Tony Blair’s former director of communications, Alastair Campbell, from the program.

The BBC refused to comply with the request and the show aired without a representative from the coalition government — just two days after the government had announced its new policies in the British parliament, which is delivered with a speech by Queen Elizabeth II.

“Question Time’s” executive editor Gavin Allen said the government had demanded that Campbell, a key figure in the old Labour government, did not appear on the show because he was not an elected representative.

“Very obviously we refused,” Allen wrote, “and as a result no minister appeared, meaning that the government was not represented on the country’s most-watched political program in Queen’s Speech week — one of the most important moments in the parliamentary calendar.”

He added: “This week for the first time in my three years as executive editor of ‘Question Time,’ we were told by Downing Street that a cabinet minister would only appear on the program if another member of the panel was replaced.”

Allen continued: “It is a fundamental principle of our independence that politicians cannot dictate who sits on the panel.

“It is for ‘Question Time,’ not for political parties, to make judgments about impartiality and to determine who is invited to appear in the interests of the audience.”

A government spokeswoman said: “In the week of the Queen’s Speech the BBC booked Alastair Campbell in the place of an Opposition frontbencher to appear on Question Time — which we questioned.

“Before a final decision was made on who might appear on behalf of the government, the BBC directly booked John Redwood MP to appear.”

The row is significant because it could help set the tone for the coalition’s relationship with the BBC, whose funding and activities may be reduced by the new administration.

In opposition, the new Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to freeze the level of the BBC license fee, levied on all U.K. homes that watch TV.

But during the election campaign he went out on a limb by saying: “I am probably the most pro-BBC Conservative leader there’s ever been.”

Traditionally, Conservatives have been tougher on the BBC than Labour or the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative’s coalition partners.

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