Freedom of TV news

Alastair Campbell, the director of communications at No 10 Downing Street who is sometimes known as the deputy prime minister because of his closeness to Tony Blair, has been given a basic lesson in the principle of the freedom of the media by the BBC, ITN and Sky News. He summoned these three main news broadcasters to Downing Street to “ask” them to be careful in reporting news of the antiterrorist campaign and, in particular, of Osama bin Laden's videos which have been seen on the Middle East satellite TV station Arab al-Jazeera.

Mr Campbell received a rebuff which he cannot have expected. The three broadcasters issued a joint statement (in itself unprecedented) which included the following points: “The best people to judge what to broadcast are the broadcasters themselves and we will retain the right to exercise our own independent, impartial editorial judgement. We are mindful of national and international security issues and the impact reports can have on different communities and cultures. The provision of independent and impartial news is a fundamental part of a free society and the democratic process.” Suggestions by No 10 that the broadcasters might wish to discuss or seek guidance on what might be particularly sensitive issues were noted but not accepted as an agreed procedure. The BBC said it felt under no duty to share information with the government and, on behalf of ITN and Sky News also, said: “The three networks have given an unequivocal statement of intent today. A dialogue has been opened but there will be no censorship and government interference will be resisted.”

RAY FLEMING

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