Ashcroft lawyers force BBC to shelve film

Mar 18, 2010
Rachel Helyer-Donaldson

Unlikely Panorama investigation into Tory peer’s tax affairs will be shown before election, if at all

The BBC has been forced to put a Panorama documentary about controversial Conservative Party donor Lord Ashcroft on hold after his lawyers threatened legal action.

One BBC insider told the Independent that Panorama's producers had received "several very heavy letters" from Ashcroft's lawyers. Panorama had sent a production team to Belize and to the Turks and Caicos Islands where Lord Ashcroft - who recently admitted he was a 'non-dom' - has business interests.

It is now highly unlikely that the Panorama investigation will be broadcast before the general election, if it goes out at all.

Plans to broadcast the programme this month have already sparked furious protests from David Cameron's campaign team. Several senior Tories sent letters to BBC director-general Mark Thompson and BBC Trust chair Sir Michael Lyons, insisting that the Corporation delay broadcast until after the election.

However sources within the BBC are insisting that the delay is solely due to the risk of legal action, and that the Corporation has not bowed to political pressure. A source told the Independent: "If the programme doesn't go out before the general election, it has nothing to do with the Conservatives. It's to do with whether it's legally clearable."

A spokesman for Lord Ashcroft said it was "hardly a revelation" that the peer's lawyers had contacted the BBC over the investigation. He added: "We shall watch this space."

Meanwhile former Tory leader William Hague has admitted that he was wrong to pledge that the Tory's biggest and most controversial donor would pay "tens of millions of pounds" of tax in a deal over his Lords seat. Hague's promise, in a letter to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, gave the impression that Ashcroft would cease to be a 'non-dom' and begin paying tax on all his overseas earnings.

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