BBC admits sending hecklers into Conservative campaign meeting

Monday, April 25, 2005

The BBC is responding to accusations that producers of the BBC3 documentary The Heckler equipped hecklers with radio microphones and sent them into a campaign meeting where Conservative leader Michael Howard was speaking, breaching section 5.3(b)1 of the BBC charter agreement.

The documentary is about the lost art of heckling in electoral debate and is due to be aired on BBC3 on 26 April 2005. It includes interviews with prominent Conservative members Michael Hesiltine and Michael Portillo about the importance of heckling and political debate.

"For the public service broadcaster purposely to disrupt part of a democratic election effectively to create entertainment shows just how far the standards of the BBC have plummeted," Conservative co-chairman Liam Fox told The Times.

"I do not believe that the BBC should be in the business of creating news," Conservative Communications head Guy Black told The Times.

Mr. Black also claimed the BBC has been unable to point to any Labour meetings that had been disrupted in a similar fashion, although producers claim that members of the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties were also heckled.

At the time of the incident in question, the hecklers did not admit to their affiliation with the BBC, calling themselves "shoppers". It is also claimed by Mr. Black they were later spotted attending another event with the same crew at Stockton-on-Tees.

According to Mr. Black's letter of protest to the broadcaster, Sally Freestone, the UK Special Events assignments editor, was said to be "aghast" at the BBC's behaviour.

Conservative officials have demanded that the BBC apologize and promise not to air the controversial footage.

However, Helen Boaden, director of news at the BBC, refused to apologise and responded to the accusations in a letter to Mr. Black, shown to The Guardian.

Ms. Boaden accused the Conservatives of blowing "the whole episode out of all proportion" and grandstanding, saying: "No news was created until [Mr. Black's] letter was supplied to three national Sunday newspapers."

She responded to claims that the documentary had broken BBC guidelines by contesting the events as presented by Mr. Black, answering accustations that they had also been in Stockton-on-Tees and accusations by the Sunday Telegraph that the hecklers had been hostile to the Conservatives as "simply untrue".

The hecklers equipped by the BBC shouted "Michael Howard is a liar", "You can’t trust the Tories" and "You can only trust Tony Blair".

A BBC spokesman told reporters that they would be "investigating the complaint and very thoroughly and will be replying in due course."