Page last updated at 08:18 GMT, Friday, 28 May 2010 09:18 UK

Row over Alastair Campbell on BBC Question Time panel

David Dimbleby explains the BBC's decision

Downing Street refused to field a Cabinet minister on Question Time because the panel featured Alastair Campbell, the BBC has said.

The show's executive editor Gavin Allen said No 10 had offered to put up a minister but only if Mr Campbell was replaced by a shadow cabinet member.

Mr Allen said he refused the request as a point of "fundamental principle".

No 10 objected to the fact that former Labour communications chief Mr Campbell was not a shadow minister.

The row meant that, unusually, there was no representative of the government or an MP from the opposition on the programme.

Backbench Conservative MP John Redwood, who this week demonstrated his independence from the government by calling for its policy on capital gains tax to be scrapped, was representing the Conservatives.

He began the programme by saying he was "very happy to defend the coalition government, to represent it," in the absence of a minister.

The other guests were former Lib Dem MP Susan Kramer, and journalists Piers Morgan and Max Hastings.

'Extraordinary'

Introducing the programme, host David Dimbleby said he would have "expected" to have had a government minister on the panel in the week that it unveiled its legislative agenda for the year ahead in the Queen's Speech.

It is for Question Time, not political parties, to make judgements about impartiality and to determine who is invited to appear in the interests of the audience
Gavin Allen
Executive editor, Question Time

He explained that No 10 had made it clear that a cabinet minister was "available" to appear but only if Mr Campbell was replaced by a member of the shadow cabinet.

He said it was up to "us on Question Time to decide who should be on the programme not Downing Street".

Mr Campbell said it was "extraordinary" there was no member of the government on the show in the week of the Queen's Speech "regardless of who else is on the panel".

It is believed David Laws, the chief secretary to the Treasury, had been scheduled to appear on the show.

At the end of the show Mr Campbell held up a picture of Mr Laws and suggested that he had been due to appear.

Question Time executive editor Mr Allen said it was the "first time" in his three years in the job that No 10 had made such a demand.

'Influential'

Explaining why it had been "obviously refused", he said: "It is a fundamental principle of our independence that politicians cannot dictate who sits on the panel.

"It is for Question Time, not political parties, to make judgements about impartiality and to determine who is invited to appear in the interests of the audience.

"Parties are free to accept or reject those invitations but they do not have a right of veto over other panellists. Licence fee payers rightly insist that the BBC must be free from political interference."

Alistair Campbell

Alastair Campbell on the government's refusal to debate with him on Question Time

Mr Allen said Mr Campbell was one of the most "senior and influential" figures in the Labour movement.

He added that when in government, Labour ministers had regularly appeared on Question Time when the opposition was represented either by a backbench MP or by an unelected panellist.

"It is not an argument or an objection that bears scrutiny," he added.

Explaining the government's decision, a Downing Street spokesman said: "In the week of the Queen's Speech the BBC booked Alastair Campbell in the place of an opposition front bencher 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."

'Cocky'

Writing about the row on his blog after the programme, Mr Campbell said he had "only learned as the programme started the reason why there was no minister".

And he mounted a strongly worded attack on what he called the Lib Dem-Tory coalition government's "idiotic decision to try to get me kicked off the panel by refusing to field a minister if I was 'the Labour voice'".

He added: "It suggested that since becoming the government despite their failure to secure a majority, the Tories have gone all cocky and decided they can start to dictate the terms on which impartial broadcasters go about their business.

"I may be a bit of a control freak but the idea of saying you can only have x if y is axed was way beyond my understanding of the rules of the game."

Mr Campbell was a key adviser to Tony Blair in opposition and was No 10 director of communications and strategy between 1997 and 2003 - when he stepped down from the role.

He recently returned to the limelight advising Labour on its general election strategy and was among those coaching Gordon Brown ahead of the leadership debates.

He was one of a close circle of advisers in Downing Street in the final hours of Mr Brown's premiership as the party tried and failed to negotiate a coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats.



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