The Government says it will monitor all broadcasts featuring bin Laden
Downing Street plans to monitor all broadcasts by Osama bin Laden for evidence he may be using them to relay messages to terrorist sleepers in the UK.
Tony Blair has backed off a head-on confrontation with the media after broadcasters warned they would resist any attempt to interfere with their editorial freedom in covering the war to topple the Taliban and dismantle the al-Qaeda network.
But Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister’s director of communications, served notice that if evidence was uncovered by intelligence sources it would be passed on to the BBC, ITN and Sky News.
The BBC itself transmitted coded messages to British agents in Nazi-occupied Europe during the Second World War and there is concern that bin Laden may be using interviews with the Al-Jazeera TV network to communicate with terrorists.
After Campbell had met BBC director of news Richard Sambrook, ITN editor-in-chief Richard Tait and head of Sky News Nick Pollard, the PM’s spokesman said: "There was recognition that, given this network is diffuse, scattered and highly elusive, we have to be alive to the possibility they have been used to send signals around the world. I think the broadcasters accepted that, should we have any further information that would help them make judgements, that would be welcome."
Broadcasters united to issue a joint statement warning Downing Street: "We will retain the right to exercise our own independent, impartial, editorial judgement.
"The provision of independent and impartial news is a fundamental part of a free society and the democratic process."
But Sambrook gave an assurance the corporation would not disclose Blair’s travel plans in advance. Campbell raised concerns after BBC reporters Jeremy Bowen and Kate Adie revealed the PM’s trip to Oman the previous week during the Breakfast programme.
Broadcasters were also asked to exercise caution when the Taliban invited cameramen to film alleged civilian deaths following US missile attacks.
But the BBC made clear it felt under no duty to share information with the Government.
Both the broadcasters and Downing Street insisted there had been no confrontation. Downing Street was surprised at the Sunday newspaper coverage after disclosing that Campbell had summoned news chiefs to the meeting.
Campbell said: "We are not censoring. We were not summoning people into Downing Street for BBC-bashing or broadcaster-bashing." Sambrook said: "There had been talk of censorship and suggestions that the BBC would be squeezed by the Government. That hasn’t happened and it isn’t likely to."
By David Rose