Alastair Campbell Question Time row: Government hits out at BBC

Row escalates after the new coalition government boycotts Question Time

Alastair Campbell

Alastair Campbell, who wrote on his blog this morning: 'I thought I must be hallucinating'. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The row between the BBC and the government over Alastair Campbell's Question Time appearance last night shows no signs of ending after No 10 accused the BBC today of behaving improperly by inviting him on to the programme.

A Downing Street source told the Evening Standard's political editor, Paul Waugh: "Campbell seemed to be on because he's flogging a book next week, so the BBC haven't behaved entirely properly here."

The BBC revealed last night that the government had refused to allow a member of the cabinet to appear on the programme unless Campbell, Tony Blair's former director of communications, was removed as a panellist.

Gavin Allen, Question Time's executive editor, wrote on a BBC blog: "It is a fundamental principle of our independence that politicians cannot dictate who sits on the panel."

No 10 issued a statement after the show was broadcast confirming it had "questioned" the BBC's decision to book Campbell "in the place of an opposition frontbencher".

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

Campbell today hit back at government claims that he appeared on Question Time to promote his new book.

"[Andy] Coulson [director of communications at the Conservative party] is now briefing I went on to flog the book," Campbell told the Guardian.

The unedited version of Campbell's diaries, The Blair Years, are published next week. Extracts from the book will be published in the Guardian tomorrow.

Campbell said: "Question Time have been trying to get me on for ever. I've just never done it for various reasons. I thought in a sense it would be easier [if the Labour party was] out of power. I said to them: 'If we were to lose I'd come on at some point.' They wanted me to do next week and I said that would be a bit tacky."

The producers of the programme, the independent producer Mentorn, offered Campbell a series of alternative dates. "The only one I could do was last night," he said.

Campbell said the Conservative party's critical stance towards the BBC might have played some part in the government's decision to pick an argument with the corporation. "It may be part of the BBC agenda. There may be a bit of that," he said.

The Conservatives regularly criticised the BBC when in opposition, complaining that its executives were over-paid and lambasting the corporation for failing to disclose the salaries of its biggest stars.

David Cameron also forced an emergency Commons debate on the BBC licence fee last year and called for the £145.50-a-year tax to be frozen.

However, the Tories appeared to have softened their stance on the BBC in recent months, even before entering into a coalition government with the more pro-corporation Liberal Democrats.

The coalition government's legislative programme, published last week, contains a proposal to allow the National Audit Office full access to the BBC accounts – a move backed by both the Tories and the Lib Dems.

However, there was no mention of plans to scrap the BBC Trust, which the Tories talked about before the election, or freeze the licence fee.

Campbell wrote on his blog in the early hours of this morning that he had no idea why there was no government representative on Question Time until he took his place on the panel.

"I only learned as the programme started the reason why there was no minister. I thought I must be hallucinating at first. Did David Dimbleby just say the government would only field a minister if I was bounced? I think he did."

A BBC spokesman dismissed the suggestion it had acted improperly by having Campbell on as a guest. "I think people recognise why we would have Alastair Campbell on the programme", he said.

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  • Tugster Tugster

    28 May 2010, 1:57PM

    If I were the Tories I would be letting this one die down. Even if the BBC have behaved improperly the government just look like they are scared of Campbell. It's no different from having Carol Vorderman on, except that his feistiness is likely to be effective, rather than embarrassing

  • jno50 jno50

    28 May 2010, 1:57PM

    The BBC are free to invite anyone they want on to the show. But they do not have a right (as they seem to think they have) to demand an appearance by anyone.

    The Tories are free to turn down the invitation. In their place I would have done the same and for the same reasons. Why should policymakers be expected to defend their position against unelected spin doctors?

  • Boslow Boslow

    28 May 2010, 1:57PM

    So he's flogging his book.

    Good the see the values of New Labour are still alive and well.

    Pity the morons who buy his book. Who are thse people?

  • darrenlollipopman darrenlollipopman

    28 May 2010, 2:04PM

    What tedious posturing and positioning by the government, no doubt controlled by Coulson and Murdoch fils in their bid to emasculate the BBC. Don't they realise she's an Auntie? Even the Daily Mail will soon be ashamed of this spectacle.

  • Janino Janino

    28 May 2010, 2:04PM

    coulson and co are running scared of the spinmaster! Typical tories, I imagine they were like: "ooo, we won't come on because alistair may be a brute to us!" and I have a mental image of a toff flaying thier arms at campbell shouting brute over and over. The tories and their grotty little partners the (used to be) liberal democrats know their policies do not stand up to scrutiny when seen in parallel with their manifesto promises, that's why they didn't put anyone up. So much for an open and transparent new politics!

    N.B. is it just me or is having (used to be) Liberals in power a frightening thing, nothing scarier than a mean liberal (ahem)!

  • nemesis2 nemesis2

    28 May 2010, 2:05PM

    "A BBC spokesman dismissed the suggestion it had acted improperly by having Campbell on as a guest. "I think people recognise why we would have Alastair Campbell on the programme", he said."

    Yes, I think we certainly do recognise why, and given that, I think most people understand why the Government felt they had no desire to put forward a Minister to spend the entire programme wasting their time engaging with this man.

    Why should they, unless of course the BBC think they, not the Government, run the country.

    This is such non-story.

  • yonsok yonsok

    28 May 2010, 2:06PM

    I wonder how long it will be before the invective directed at Campbell moves to Andy Coulson?

    Judging by this , not too long.

    They are the same thing. They all have them. Get over it.

  • historicalnovelist historicalnovelist

    28 May 2010, 2:07PM

    Unpopular as this view may be on the Guardian, I think the government were right and I found D.Dimbleby's opening tirade petulant and sanctimonious. Anyway, if Campbell didn't know there would be no minister on the show until it started, as your article and his blog state, how come he had a photograph of David Laws at the ready to produce at the very end? (A stunt and one the BBC should not be proud of).

    Btw, I'm not a conservative voter or supporter. And the show last night was pretty awful: it managed to make John Redwood appear sensible and conciliatory. John Redwood!!!

  • sam007 sam007

    28 May 2010, 2:07PM

    I must have missed Campbell mentioning his book,The ConDems are Frit i tell you,Frit,out of three programmes theres only been one government member,The tories didn,t mind sharing with old nick griffin,says it all really

  • Janino Janino

    28 May 2010, 2:08PM

    "Why should they, unless of course the BBC think they, not the Government, run the count"

    IT'S CALLED ACCOUNTABILITY YOU BAFOONS! NO DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENT SHOULD SHY WAY FROM MAKING IT'S CASE TO THE PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY ONE WHICH PROFESESS TO BE OPEN AND HONEST, HERALDING A "POLITICS"

  • Smurfylicious Smurfylicious

    28 May 2010, 2:10PM

    Campbell is unelected; that leaves him free to say what ever he wants without being held accountable either by the Labour Party or the electorate.

    The Con-Dems recognised this setup as the elephant trap it was and were wise to decline.

    I don't know about everyone else but I've had enough of spin and enough of spin doctors to last me this life and another ten after that.

  • Epanastis25Martiou Epanastis25Martiou

    28 May 2010, 2:10PM

    The politics aside, yesterday's QT was fantastically funny. Piers Morgan and Campbell earned their keep.

    Like 2 scrappy boys and their rag tag gang in the headmaster's office.

    I cracked up with each attempt by Piers to lower the tone.

    "I confess I never sucked her toes...although she does have beautiful toes...and I would have given half the chance"

    Classic!

  • Natacha Natacha

    28 May 2010, 2:10PM

    Contributor Contributor

    You gotta laugh. The Tories have only just been elected and already they cannot stand up to scrutiny or reasoned argument. They obviously can't have their queen's speech put under scrutiny.

    The BBC is right, they should not be allowed to dictate who goes no the show and who does not, as much as they would like to...

    Nemisis;

    This is only a non-story for Tories.

  • Tricolori Tricolori

    28 May 2010, 2:11PM

    jno50

    Why should policymakers be expected to defend their position against unelected spin doctors?

    The government aren't there to defend their policy against unelected spin doctors, they are there to defend their policies against the general public.

    It is the audience, made up of people like you and me, who have very few opportunities to hold the government to account who ask the questions and demand answers, not the other members of the panel.

  • awfulpoet awfulpoet

    28 May 2010, 2:11PM

    @jno50:

    Why should policymakers be expected to defend their position against unelected spin doctors?

    For the same reason that they should be defending their positions against the queries and criticisms of ordinary citizens and of journalists. The structure of Question Time is not for Campbell to harangue government officials (even if he were to manage to do this); it is for members of the studio audience to pose questions about policy and politics to the panel and for the moderator to try to keep the panel's responses on point.

    The questions you should be asking are why, in the week of the Queen's Speech, did the government refuse to submit to such an examination and whether it is ever, under any circumstances, proper for any government to interfere with public debate?

  • CuthbertB CuthbertB

    28 May 2010, 2:12PM

    If I had to choose between Campbell, the BBC and the Tories I wouldn't bother but the Tories are the obvious losers here. They have no right to insist who they debate with as a representative of the opposition. In fact I would have thought that someone as tainted as Campbell would have suited them down to the ground as someone representative of what the electorate has just rejected. Big own goal. The Tories have screwed up on the 1922 backbench committee and now over Question Time in just 3 weeks of being in government showing their lack of democratic qualities. I can't see this coalition lasting at this rate as they're bound to piss off the Lib-Dems soon.

  • drofwarc drofwarc

    28 May 2010, 2:13PM

    I think the whole programme was a total disaster and wandered way off the normal format. Pinky and Perky alias Campbell and Morgan were completely out of control and Dimbleby lost the plot. I switched off half way through, and considered the programme a definite shambles.

  • Bassline Bassline

    28 May 2010, 2:14PM

    jno50:

    Why should policymakers be expected to defend their position against unelected spin doctors?

    Does it really make a difference whether they are elected or not? Susan Kramer was representing the Liberals and she isn't elected either. All the public expect is to see a representative of each of the major parties.

    Of course, none of us will remember this in a week's time but today? I'm thinking I see a failure of confidence here - and the honeymoon ain't even over yet.

  • zephirine zephirine

    28 May 2010, 2:15PM

    Surely this was a calculated attempt to diminish the BBC by making it clear that this government considers it has no obligation to appear on BBC programmes? By choosing Campbell, the Question Time producers gave them a perfect opportunity to make a statement, as so many of the public resent him.

    To be fair, if Redwood was on then there was a Tory spokesman. But I think we'll see more of this, there have already been remarks about 'not being part of the media circus now the election's over'. Cameron and Coulson - just like Campbell - have inside experience of the media and will try to bully them first.

    Or perhaps they think leaking the Queen's speech gave the public quite enough information for the time being.

  • cowmonkey cowmonkey

    28 May 2010, 2:15PM

    The government position has matured greatly. Last night they were only capable of throwing their toys out of the pram, now they're all grown-up and can do name calling as well.

    In seriousness though, the government now that they're in power should have the class to rise above such squallid party politics. Engage with us, the population who are impacted by your decisions .The whole point of this coalition government is that we're supposed to be in some post-new-Lab world of accountability and openness, not the continuation of the tawdry mire of muck and spin the likes of Alastair Campbell perpetuated.

    Or perhaps it's just because that whole televised public debate strategy went so dramatically tits-up last time they tried it...

  • WinningestWinner WinningestWinner

    28 May 2010, 2:17PM

    Coulson really is a waste of space.

    He completely bottles a political debate, as he's scared Campbell may be a bit too good. And the best he can come up with is some "book selling" smear?!

    What's Question Time got to do with books. Campbell just went on their and talked policy.

  • Szlater Szlater

    28 May 2010, 2:17PM

    This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.
  • Szlater Szlater

    28 May 2010, 2:18PM

    This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.
  • erolsuleyman erolsuleyman

    28 May 2010, 2:18PM

    If Campbell and Mandy never get to go up against Ministers on TV it won't be long before they just don't get asked anymore. Shadow ministers will have to talk for themselves. Pretty good strategy by the Govt I'd say.

  • kam1966 kam1966

    28 May 2010, 2:19PM

    Apparently (cf The Times, today) the panellists on QT last night included only one MP. When did QT become a platform for unelected opinion-merchants? Why was there no MP from the Labour Party? Surely if questions of policy are put to the panel there should be both government and opposition representatives on hand to answer, not individuals outside of government who have little or no bearing on how the country is to be run.

  • WinningestWinner WinningestWinner

    28 May 2010, 2:21PM

    PPS.

    Cameron should sack Coulson.

    He's stuck in "news of the world" territory.

    He thinks he can do anything, and then leak a few "a source said" quotes, to smooth it all over.

    Like the electorate has the same mental age of his old customers. About 14........

  • cowmonkey cowmonkey

    28 May 2010, 2:22PM

    P.S...thanks to The Guardian for finally declaring your interest in this...I presume your cheque to Alastair for serialising his new book was matched with a cash donation to an Iraqi hospital?

  • Hippocampus Hippocampus

    28 May 2010, 2:22PM

    I am enjoying the way the Guardian has managed to plug Campbell's book, which they are paying him to serialise, in an article that bashes Coulson for briefing that Campbell was on the BBC to plug his book. Chutzpah on quite a scale, there.

    For everyone fuming and foaming about the fact the government didn't want to put a minister on with that book flogging dossier-sexer, how many times during Campbell and Labour's reign can you remember John Snow, Paxman et al. announcing after a report "We did ask the government for an interview but unfortunately no-one was available". Quite a few times, I reckon...

  • AbandonedTracks AbandonedTracks

    28 May 2010, 2:23PM

    I am by no means a Tory supporter by I completely understand the Government's position on this.

    Why should Labour?s hatchet man be given such a platform against Government ministers? He is unelected and unaccountable (this is not just that I despise the man?).

    They already had Piers Morgan on there (I have more pity for him because no-one likes him and has no influence), why were Labour allowed to be represented by a man of effectively similar standing?

    The Governement were in something of a catch 22 though, as they have now given Campbell and his supporters ammunition.

    Twitter resembled the nights of the Live Debates with Campbell winning on ?substance?. I bet this loathsome individual was gutted he couldn?t get on there himself to blow his own trumpet!

  • WinningestWinner WinningestWinner

    28 May 2010, 2:23PM

    Apparently (cf The Times, today) the panellists on QT last night included only one MP. When did QT become a platform for unelected opinion-merchants? Why was there no MP from the Labour Party? Surely if questions of policy are put to the panel there should be both government and opposition representatives on hand to answer, not individuals outside of government who have little or no bearing on how the country is to be run.

    ============================================================

    Labour ministers spent most of the last decade defending their policies on Question Time against conservative leaning authors, journalists, spin doctors, advisors.

    I once saw an episode, where Ed Balls was under the cosh all night by the tory representative - the deputy Editor of the Daily Mail! (I forget his name).

    It's a matter of character I'm afraid. It's not statesmanlike, to pull out of TV events, as you don't like the panel.

    It's what dictators do. Try and fix the panel.

  • WinningestWinner WinningestWinner

    28 May 2010, 2:24PM

    For everyone fuming and foaming about the fact the government didn't want to put a minister on with that book flogging dossier-sexer, how many times during Campbell and Labour's reign can you remember John Snow, Paxman et al. announcing after a report "We did ask the government for an interview but unfortunately no-one was available". Quite a few times, I reckon...

    ===========================================================

    You actually believe Coulsons PR rubbish.

    Sun reader I assume.

  • frightfuloik frightfuloik

    28 May 2010, 2:24PM

    Why should policymakers be expected to defend their position against unelected spin doctors?

    They should be prepared to defend it against anyone, if it's worth defending. Cluck, cluck.

  • Victoriatheoldgoth Victoriatheoldgoth

    28 May 2010, 2:25PM

    Btw, it was the liveliest QT I have seen in years. I actually sat through the whole prog and missed Charlie Brooker for it (sadly, I don't have any of those newfangled iPlayer devices on my old Mac).

  • Mimann Mimann

    28 May 2010, 2:25PM

    Campbell is truly one of the most odious people in politics today.

    His greatest 'achievement' was to peddle the lie that John Major tucked his shirt into his underpants. What an intellectual titan. He typifies the yobbery, thuggishness and the crude manners that the middle-class public schoolboys who run the BBC so love.

    No wonder the BBC is in thrall to him.

  • ThomasR ThomasR

    28 May 2010, 2:25PM

    Oh I see. So Campbell gets to pick and choose when he's on, while Government Ministers are expected to turn up on demand?

    Yes, that seems perfectly reasonable.

  • Boslow Boslow

    28 May 2010, 2:25PM

    Question time is well past it's sell by date.

    Together with Top Gear, it should be sold off to some specialist channel on sky that still lives in the eighties.

    Campbell is a nobody. We don't care anymore. Brown and Blair have gone. That's all that matters.

  • WinningestWinner WinningestWinner

    28 May 2010, 2:25PM

    This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.
  • WinningestWinner WinningestWinner

    28 May 2010, 2:27PM

    Oh I see. So Campbell gets to pick and choose when he's on, while Government Ministers are expected to turn up on demand?

    Yes, that seems perfectly reasonable

    ===========================================================

    Tory activist

    Campbell is a free UK citizen. He can decline invitations how he pleases.

    When you are supposed to be running the country, you are generally expected to defend your policies, no matter what the opposition on the panel.

  • Davrob7 Davrob7

    28 May 2010, 2:27PM

    CuthbertB

    The electorate may have rejected Labour. But have you forgotten already that they rejected the Tories and the Lib Dems too...that is why we have this rag-tag coalition of soul sellers and improbable bedfellows!?

    The Tories will take on the BBC...if that is their ultimate intention....at their peril.

  • RedNinja RedNinja

    28 May 2010, 2:28PM

    come on you yellow Lib-Cons show some backbone - if you havent got a minister with enough bottle to take on AC then put Coulson up for it - I would pay good money to watch AC wipe the floor with that ex-Murdoch slimeball :) :) :)

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