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Thursday, 23 March, 2000, 23:28 GMT
Blair's spokesman attacks BBC
tony blair
Tony Blair, right, shares a joke with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar
Prime Minister Tony Blair's official spokesman Alastair Campbell has accused the BBC of "dumbing down" amid a row about the use of three jets to fly ministers to the European summit in Lisbon.

In a letter to Tony Hall, chief executive of BBC News, Mr Campbell said that the corporation's 1800 GMT television news had trivialised the EU summit in Lisbon.

The row over the Cabinet's travelling arrangements centres on the three jets used to fly Prime Minister Tony Blair, Chancellor Gordon Brown and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to the summit.

Mr Campbell wrote: "The prime minister and other EU leaders are attending a summit in Lisbon addressing issues of economic reform which the UK has been trying to get taken seriously in Europe for some time.

"They are making decisions that have a real impact on the jobs, education and future prosperity of Europe's citizens.

"Yet the only coverage of the Prime Minister, or of Lisbon, was a couple of clips of him answering questions on whether he intends to take paternity leave, which the BBC has been interested in since the subject formed a small part of the prime minister's interview on the Today programme which was broadcast this morning."

'Genuine interest'

Mr Campbell said the jet row was "an essentially trivial and easily explained issue".

But the BBC said the "dumbing down" charge was "nonsense".

A spokesman said: "Tonight's Six o'clock News included in-depth reports on the new policy of retaining organs, the challenge to David Trimble, Rover, the Pope's visit to Israel, BNFL and Kosovo as well as Tony Blair's thoughts on taking paternity leave.

"This was of genuine interest to many viewers and made more so by Cherie Booth's speech earlier this week on the subject.

"Although the summit was not on the 6pm bulletin, it was covered by other BBC outlets such as radio and News 24."

'Two Jags to three jets'

The Tories said the use of three jets for the Cabinet showed a "complete disregard for taxpayers' money".

Liberal Democrat spokesman Don Foster compared the affair to Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott's use of two Jaguar cars, saying: "Labour have upgraded themselves from two Jags to three jets."

The row came as Mr Blair said the 15 EU leaders were on the verge of agreeing a package of measures designed to embrace the e-commerce revolution and clear the way for other social and welfare reforms.

The Ministry of Defence said the cost of using each plane for the trip was 2,000 an hour to fly, bringing the total cost for the round trip for all three planes on the two and a half hour flight to Lisbon to 30,000.

"This was done in the most cost effective way to the taxpayer," said a spokesman.

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