"The incident shows how the democratic rights of people in this country are being eroded" - Brian Baxter quoted in the Eastern Daily Press, MAY 23 200
"Ms McDonagh's* claim that the safety of politicians on the stump was endangered by too-close contact with the electorate led one inexorably to the Ceausescu model of people-management - speak to them only from a great height - balconies, preferably." - Anne McElvoy writing in The Independent, MAY 23 2001
* general secretary of the Labour Party
1. BBC in Blair Row - EDP
2. Blair in retreat after shooting the messenger - Times
1. BBC in Blair Row
After incident in Norfolk, Labour accuses broadcasters of collusion
Eastern Daily Press, May 23 2001 [shortened]
A Norfolk farmer and BBC East were at the centre of a pre-election storm last night over Labour Party claims that broadcasters had "crossed the line" and orchestrated hustings protests.
The incident - involving farmer and former Liberal parliamentary candidate Brian Baxter when Prime Minister Tony Blair visited King's Lynn on Friday - was the only evidence cited by Labour to justify its controversial letter to broadcasters accusing them of "inciting and colluding with" protesters to embarrass the party.
The incident happened when Mr Blair visited the Queen Elizabeth Hospital during his six-hour visit to the county.
It later emerged that organic grower Mr Baxter, an outspoken critic of GM foods, had been driven to the hospital by BBC East reporter Mike Liggins and fitted with a microphone. Smallholder Mr Baxter, 68, had earlier appeared on Look East's lunchtime bulletin, saying he wanted to ask Mr Blair why the Government was spending so much money on GM food when nobody wanted to eat it.
"I phoned the BBC and they eventually came back to me and asked if I wanted to put my question to Mr Blair," he said. "So I ended up in front of the hospital with my wellies, my green overalls and my beret on."
As he weeded his onions and hoed his cabbage patch yesterday, Mr Baxter said: "The BBC took me up to the hospital and put the microphone in my breast pocket.
"There was no question of hiding it because there was a blooming great aerial hanging out.
"We were waiting for Mr Blair to come out of the building when his press secretary came up and said she was concerned about the 'mike' and asked the BBC man, 'What is he doing here? "The tone of her voice was aggressive. I stepped forward and told her that I had asked the BBC to help me.
"She then started on at me. She asked me aggressively, 'Did you phone up or did they phone you?' "Mr Blair came out a few minutes later with an entourage that bustled him into the children's unit. I used to play rugby and it was very close to a scrum."
"I said 'Mr Blair' and the BBC man said, 'Mr Blair I have got a farmer here who wants to ask you a question'.
"But Mr Blair was swept in. At that stage the BBC cameraman was knocked over and someone grabbed his elbow. He went down but he saved his camera."
Retired seed salesman Mr Baxter, who farms near Swaffham, said: "The incident shows how the democratic rights of people in this country are being eroded. If you can't speak to a politician on the hustings, then what can you do?
"It demonstrates the crazy hype and paranoia that has got into politics. I did not mean to cause him any harm. I was certainly not going to throw a ploughshare or a brick at him. I think the Labour Party ought to grow up."
Margaret McDonagh, the party's general secretary, wrote to the BBC, ITN and Sky after Friday's visit, claiming she had evidence that broadcasters had "crossed the line" and "been inciting and colluding with" protesters.
Labour sources later told the EDP it was the events surrounding the visit to East Anglia on Friday, rather than the John Prescott fracas or Mr Blair's confrontation with the wife of a cancer victim, which had prompted Ms McDonagh's letter.
Look East was yesterday referring all inquiries on the matter to the BBC's London press office, and staff in the Norwich newsroom were not allowed to comment. "We did mike him up but it was not a secret mike, you could see he had it on him," one insider said.
"All he wanted to do was stand at the back of the crowd and ask his question."
Earlier both Mr Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown had repeatedly declined to offer any proof of Ms McDonagh's claims, which were made in letters to TV bosses sent late on Friday.
The BBC, ITN and Sky News all dismissed her allegations and Mr Brown read out a statement from Ms McDonagh.
...The BBC's head office said it had looked at Labour's allegations but had found nothing to substantiate the party's claims. "We have no evidence whatsoever of any collusion between the BBC and protesters as suggested by the Labour Party," said a spokesman. A spokesman for ITN also firmly rejected the party's complaint.
2. Blair in retreat after shooting the messenger [shortened]
WEDNESDAY MAY 23 2001
BY PHILIP WEBSTER, POLITICAL EDITOR AND ANDREW NORFOLK
THE Labour leadership staged a swift retreat in its battle with the broadcasters yesterday, amid recriminations at the party’s Millbank headquarters over whether it had been right to complain about alleged collusion and incitement of protesters.
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown went out of their way to try to end the row that followed the leaking of a letter from Margaret McDonagh, the party’s general secretary, to the BBC, ITV and Sky that said that such behaviour crossed the line between reporting and creating news.
...Brian Baxter’s attempt to get an answer from the Prime Minister in King’s Lynn failed in the media scrum. The Corporation insisted that it had not been seeking to manufacture a story when it arranged to film Mr Baxter, 68, an organic farmer. It wanted to give viewers an idea of how easy, or difficult, it was for an ordinary voter to put a question in the campaign.
The BBC admitted yesterday that a crew from its Look East news programme had given Mr Baxter a lift from his home in Swaffham, 11 miles away and he was fitted with a microphone and an aerial. The spokesman said that they had been “up front and transparent” about what they were doing and had informed the Labour press office. Mr Baxter said that he had contacted the BBC for help and he had not been pushed or urged forward by the crew.
'Topics banished to the back of the manifestos, such as genetic research, conservation, animal welfare and poverty, appear to be those engaging growing numbers of the public. And, as our survey clearly demonstrates, these are matters embraced not just by the young, educated middle classes. It is the older age groups who are most concerned about the plight of the countryside, while GM foods concern the lower socio-economic sections of society as much as the ABC1s.' The Scotsman, May 15, 2001 ...PEOPLE FRET OVER GLOBAL ISSUES