Ofcom rejects complaint Today treated Ashcroft unfairly

A complaint that BBC Radio 4’s flagship current affairs show, the Today programme, treated Lord Ashcroft unfairly was rejected yesterday by the broadcasting watchdog.

Lawyers Harbottle and Lewis complained to Ofcom on the deputy Conservative chairman’s behalf about the 17 December edition of the early morning news show.

They felt the programme had wrongly and unfairly stated that during Prime Minister’s Questions the Liberal Democrats had accused Lord Ashcroft of tax evasion and therefore implied he was guilty of a criminal offence.

But Ofcom found the report was a “fair reflection” of the discussion which made clear that while the Liberal Democrats had initially raised a question about tax evasion they had not accused Lord Ashcroft of this.

The show’s Yesterday in Parliament item discussed questions put to Harriet Harman, standing in for the then Prime Minister, during Prime Minister’s Questions.

The item was introduced with the words: “The Liberal Democrats have targeted the Conservative Party donor and deputy chair Lord Ashcroft in a row about tax evasion.

“The Liberal Democrat deputy leader Vince Cable used parliamentary privilege to name the peer as a non-dom, accusing him of not paying tax in the UK on overseas earnings.”

The BBC said it did not accept that the passage made the allegation claimed by the complainant.

The corporation did not agree it meant Lord Ashcroft was accused by Cable of tax evasion, that the accusation was true or that there were reasonable grounds for it.

It did not believe listeners would have taken this meaning from it, whether taken in isolation of the broadcast or as a whole.

The BBC said the transcript showed the debate grew following an initial question posed by Cable on tax which had not been collected and was “being evaded”.

It said shouted interruptions from the Labour benches introduced Lord Ashcroft’s name into the row.

The BBC said the exchange between Cable and Harman and the comments which followed were described in the full piece which followed the cue.

Ofcom found that the introduction provided a fair reflection of the parliamentary discussion and included an explanation of what being “non-dom” meant.

The regulator said listeners would have “been able to understand that the Liberal Democrats did not accuse Lord Ashcroft of tax evasion, but instead named him as a ‘non-dom’ in a debate.

“Ofcom concluded that the BBC presented the matter in the report in a way that ensured that material facts had not been presented, disregarded or omitted in this report in a way that caused unfairness to Lord Ashcroft.”

Ofcom said it did not uphold the complaint of unfair treatment.

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