The Independent Television Commission’s handling of a complaint from a journalist about Granada TV’s coverage of the Neil Hamilton ‘cash for questions’ affair is to be placed under High Court scrutiny in what is said to be a landmark case.
Jonathan Boyd Hunt has won permission for what he says will be the first challenge of its kind to the way the ITC exercises its regulatory powers.
Mr Justice Burton ruled that he had an "arguable case" in his claim that Granada failed to show "due impartiality" in its handling of the affair.
In court, Hunt claimed that Granada TV had carried out a "sustained news blackout" of the six-month independent investigation conducted by him and colleague Malcolm Keith-Hill, in which the pair found "significant circumstantial evidence" supporting Hamilton’s claims of innocence.
It also found that Hamilton had been the victim of a journalists’ conspiracy.
Jonathan Moffett, counsel for the commission, had argued that the regulator’s code of conduct only required "even-handed" coverage, and that Granada had met that requirement by including in its reports Hamilton’s denials.
However, Mr Justice Burton said that there was an arguable case that the code of conduct required Granada TV to broadcast the fact that a third party’s research into the affair supported Hamilton’s denials.
Granting permission for a full hearing into the case, which is expected to take place later this year, the judge said: "It seems to me you have an arguable case worthy of further development that the admitted failure by Granada Television to mention your significant view renders the decision in breach of the code of conduct and perverse."
Hunt undertook his investigation following the May 1997 General Election, and went on to publish a book, Trial by Conspiracy, in which he claimed that the former Conservative minister and MP for Tatton was not guilty of accepting cash from Mohamed Al Fayed in return for asking questions in Parliament.
Hunt said he had concentrated on his investigation since May 1997 after leaving Granada, where he worked as a freelance reporter.
He had no legal representation at the High Court but is hoping to get legal aid for the full hearing.
By Roger Pearson