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Panorama
My programme was not Powellite
Claudia Murg
Claudia Murg posed as a Moldovan asylum seeker

Just after 8am last Wednesday, a good friend telephoned: "Have you seen what Blunkett has written about you?" he asked.

He was referring to a front-page Guardian report of the previous night's Panorama, which I had presented as part of a series of BBC 1 programmes for "Asylum Day".

Panorama had demonstrated how chaotic and open to abuse our asylum system is as it struggles to adjudicate fairly between roughly 100,000 asylum seekers per year who claim to be fleeing persecution, and those who say they are, but aren't.

My friend went on: "Blunkett is suggesting that you are part of a Right-wing Powellite agenda." Good God, I thought. After Iraq, was this a second front the Government was opening up on the BBC? Under the headline "A return to Powellism", Blunkett had also written that the programme was "poorly researched and overspun".

I pondered returning my copy of the last BBC director-general, Lord Birt's autobiography. He had penned in it: "For John, utterly dedicated to telling the truth." Which is more than can be said about the Home Secretary in this instance, who had spun a particularly mischevious allegation against us, which he must have known to be untrue.

Beaten the system

Significantly, the box reserved for attempting to gain entry by deception was not ticked.

John Ware
Using an undercover reporter, we had tested his much-trumpeted automatic fingerprint system, which is supposed to stop multiple applications for asylum by the same person using different names - a common form of fraud. We secretly filmed our reporter, a Romanian posing as an asylum seeker called "Mihaela" as she arrived at Harwich, where she was fingerprinted.

When her application was refused, "Mihaela" presented herself at Dover as "Marianna". Again she was fingerprinted, and, after a week, was served with a detention order.

In The Guardian Mr Blunkett claimed that this was because his "fingerprinting system showed up a match". We said this was untrue. Mr Blunkett said we were "wilfully undermining confidence that the asylum system works."

The detention order disproves Blunkett's assertion. It clearly states that it was served because Marianna's application was judged suitable for a rapid decision, rather than the usual period of months.

Significantly, the box reserved for attempting to gain entry by deception was not ticked.

Greater pressure

She had beaten the system. The only reason the authorities discovered she was a multiple applicant was because, after she was detained, she owned up to being a BBC reporter. Only then were the fingerprints from Dover and Harwich matched up.

We had told Mr Blunkett's officials about our irrefutable documentary evidence before he wrote his article. They - or he - chose to ignore the facts and haven't even had the courtesy to retract.

A Guardian editorial said how much it agreed with Mr Blunkett's attack on Panorama. It complained that I had asked: "Why has Britain become the asylum capital of the Western world?" I was quoting the latest UNHCR report: "In absolute terms, the UK was the largest asylum-seeking receiving country in the industrialised world in 2002, accounting for 19 per cent of all asylum claims." Fact.

The Guardian, however, suggested that the real measure of the impact on the UK's infrastructure and social cohesion ought to be the number of applications per head of population, we being eighth in the Western league with Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Austria receiving proportionally twice our number.

I suggested to The Guardian that a more valid measure of impact was population densities and that with 380 people per square kilometre, England, where most asylum seekers live, was under much greater pressure than Switzerland at 19.7, Sweden at 21.7, or Norway at 14.42. The UK had a particular problem because two-thirds of asylum seekers go to London and the South-East, one of the most crowded areas of Europe.

Real issues

The Home Secretary's resort to "Powellite" smears reinforces the point that the BBC should not be deterred from addressing real issues

John Ware
Well, The Guardian editorial writer knew all that about that, he said, because he had been writing "bloody leaders for 35 years on this paper".

Me: "You've accused my programme of being poorly researched and it isn't."

Him: "I've just watched an hour of your bloody programme, which was a disgrace."

No one can deny that great care and sensitivity is needed here by opinion-formers. But opinion polls clearly show widespread concern about both asylum and immigration, which has more than trebled since New Labour came to office.

Our job as the nation's public service broadcaster is to facilitate and inform that debate in a manner that is not racist but rational. In the broad mix of our "Asylum Day" programmes, that is what we tried to do. I believe that we were helping to break a 35-year taboo since Enoch Powell went over the top with his "rivers of blood" speech.

The censorious tone of The Guardian's editorial and the Home Secretary's resort to "Powellite" smears reinforces the point that the BBC should not be deterred from addressing real issues: the social and political impact of the growing scale of immigration in our society.

This article first appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on July 27, 2003.

Panorama: The asylum game

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See also:

28 Jul 03 | Panorama
Reporters hit back at criticism
24 Jul 03 | Politics
Blunkett attacks BBC asylum day
02 Jul 03 | Panorama
Tories pledge to abolish NHS targets
Links to more Panorama stories are at the foot of the page.


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