So much for being neutral...
The BBC was last night plunged into a damaging general election row after it admitted equipping three hecklers with microphones and sending them into a campaign meeting addressed by Michael Howard, the Conservative leader.
The Tories have made an official protest after the hecklers, who were given the microphones by producers, were caught at a party event in the North West last week. Guy Black, the party's head of communications, wrote in a letter to Helen Boaden, the BBC's director of news, that the hecklers began shouting slogans that were "distracting and clearly hostile to the Conservative Party".
These included "Michael Howard is a liar", "You can't trust the Tories" and "You can only trust Tony Blair".
Mr Black's strongly-worded letter accused the BBC of staging the event "to generate a false news story and dramatise coverage. . . intended to embarrass or ridicule the leader of the Conservative Party". The letter said that BBC staff were guilty of "serious misconduct". At least one of the hecklers was seen again at a Tory event in the North East, Mr Black added.
Last night, the BBC claimed that the exercise was part of a "completely legitimate programme about the history and art of political heckling" and said that other parties' meetings were being "observed". However, The Telegraph has established that none of Tony Blair's meetings was infiltrated or disrupted in similar fashion.
The Conservatives have called for an apology and an assurance that no such incident will occur again. It has also demanded that the BBC promises never to broadcast the footage. The corporation said it would investigate "very fully". It and other broadcasters have a statutory duty to remain impartial during election campaigns. The corporation's guidelines for producers state: "Our audiences rightly expect the highest editorial and ethical standards from the BBC."
Tory officials became suspicious at the meeting in Horwich, near Bolton, last Wednesday, when they saw BBC camera crew focusing on the hecklers rather than Mr Howard. They twice challenged the two men and a woman involved, and discovered they had been equipped with radio microphones.
Mr Black said that they described themselves as "shoppers". In fact, they were under direction from a BBC team making a programme called The History of Heckling for the BBC3 channel. The programme, whose producer is Paul Woolwich, is in the process of being edited.
Mr Black's letter said of the hecklers: "It is entirely clear to me that the success of their presence required an element of performance on their behalf, and that this was a premeditated event intended to disrupt the course of Mr. Howard's speech.
"I do not believe that the BBC should be in the business of creating news. It also appears that the same crew was at the Michael Howard visit to Stockton-on-Tees and it can be no coincidence that someone with them was one of these 'hecklers'.
"I understand that Sally Freestone, the assignments editor UK Special Events, was 'aghast' that the BBC had engaged in such behaviour.
"This is a clear and serious breach of recognised BBC producer guidelines, and accordingly a breach of Section 5.3(b)1 of the BBC Charter Agreement. I also believe that the recordings which were taken of these organised hecklers, of ordinary members of the crowd and/or of Conservative officials who reacted and were recorded, would amount to 'surreptitious recording' under those guidelines."
Such recording requires advance approval from the relevant department head, Mr Black noted, and consultation with the BBC's controller, editorial policy. "Is it suggested that these requirements have been satisfied?" his letter asked, before concluding: "My disappointment with the BBC for this attempted coup d'theatre is profound." He addressed his letter to Ms Boaden, who took over as director of news from Richard Sambrook. Mr Sambrook, a key figure in the row between the Government and the BBC over the death of David Kelly, the Iraq weapons expert, is now director of the Corporation's World Service and Global News division.
Last night a BBC spokesman said: "This is a completely legitimate programme about the history and art of political heckling. The programme observes hecklers at other parties' campaign meetings and not just the Conservatives. The hecklers were not under the direction of the BBC and their activities did not disrupt the meeting in any way. The incident at the Michael Howard meeting only plays a small part in the overall programme. However, we will be investigating the complaint very fully and will be replying in due course."
The spokesman was unable to provide details of any other campaign meetings attended by the BBC3 crew. He said that the hecklers had not been paid a fee, but could not say whether they had received expenses. The dispute is the latest in many rows between the BBC and the Tories. Last autumn the Conservatives lodged an official complaint about Mr Howard's Newsnight interview earlier this year in which Jeremy Paxman questioned Mr Howard about the sacking of Derek Lewis, the head of the Prison Service, when he was home secretary in 1995. A Conservative spokesman claimed that the continued focus on the case of Mr Lewis, almost a decade after the event, showed the "endemic bias" of the BBC.
Many Conservatives are still angry about coverage of the May 2003 local elections when - despite the Tories gaining 565 council seats - the BBC focused on the resignation of Crispin Blunt, the shadow trade minister.