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BBC shelves Panorama Lord Ashcroft investigation
03-20-2010, 11:59 AM,
#1
BBC shelves Panorama Lord Ashcroft investigation
Quote:Intense pressure from Conservative officials helped to force the BBC to quietly drop a lengthy investigation into Lord Ashcroft, the party's billionaire backer and deputy chairman. Panorama, the corporation's current affairs programme, was expected to focus on Ashcroft's business empire and his use of offshore entities.

Letters and personal interventions by senior Conservatives have increased pressure on programme makers, according to insiders. There is now little prospect of the investigation being broadcast before the general election.

The disclosure follows previous claims that the programme was shelved for legal reasons. The delay will please David Cameron but will cause concern that the BBC has been silenced in the runup to the general election. The Tories are anxious to suppress more publicity about Ashcroft's affairs after the outcry over the billionaire's belated revelation that he was not domiciled in the UK for tax purposes, and so paid no tax on overseas assets.

News of Ashcroft's status as a non-dom has prompted two separate committee hearings in parliament into the circumstances under which he was awarded a peerage.

Panorama sent a team to Belize and the Turks and Caicos Islands, where Ashcroft has business interests, to interview businessmen and politicians.

They also commissioned an extensive analysis of his company portfolio which followed the trail of money from off-shore accounts in Belize, and hired lawyers and forensic accountants to examine documentation.

Reports claim that those interviewed included the prime minister of Belize, Dean Barrow, a former ally turned critic of Ashcroft; and Shaun Malcolm, a former chairman of the opposition in the Turks and Caicos. The BBC team was led by James Oliver and Andrew Head, both senior investigative journalists.

Plans to broadcast the programme this month provoked furious protests from Conservative headquarters. Senior Tories fired off letters of protest to Mark Thompson, the BBC director-general. They objected that it was unfair to broadcast a programme on such a sensitive topic in the runup to a general election.

While there is no suggestion that Thompson has intervened, a source close to the programme said it had come under intense pressure from the Tories which had "spooked" BBC managers.

"There are always legal letters with big investigations, and this was no different. But the decision to drop the programme was a result of managers caving in to the Tories. It is about not wanting to rock the boat so close to an election that the Tories might win," the source said.

The BBC has come under attack over recent weeks for its reporting of the Ashcroft affair. Tories have claimed that the corporation should have given equal billing to Labour's non-dom donor Lord Paul – even though Ashcroft has given more than £14m to the Tories and promised to become resident in Britain, while Paul has donated less than a million and made no such promises.

Tory supporting papers are also attacking the corporation for alleged bias. Today's Sun ran an article outlining instances of anti-Tory bias including "disproportionate coverage" to the Ashcroft row.

No one from Panorama was available, but a BBC News spokesman said: "It [the Panorama programme about Ashcroft] is not in the schedule." A spokesman for Ashcroft declined to comment.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/mar/19/lord-ashcroft-bbc-panorama
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