BBC attacked for booking Brexit donor Arron Banks despite claims of 'multiple' criminal offences
Corporation accused of 'operating against the public interest' by giving Leave.EU donor a platform to air his views in 'pantomime' interview
The BBC has been accused of “operating against the public interest” by giving Brexit backer Arron Banks a platform to discuss the National Crime Agency’s investigation into his £8m donation to Leave.EU.
Mr Banks is due to appear on Sunday on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show despite Thursday’s announcement that the Electoral Commission watchdog body had referred him to the crime agency because it had reasonable grounds to suspect him of a number of criminal offences.
The announcement of the interview led to angry claims that it would be a “pantomime” allowing Mr Banks to air his views without being robustly challenged by Marr.
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The BBC was also accused of betraying trust in the national public service broadcaster and “interfering in an ongoing criminal investigation”.
Labour peer and leading Remain campaigner Andrew Adonis announced that he had written to Tony Hall, director-general of the BBC, accusing the corporation of “a very serious editorial misjudgement, influenced by a culture of accommodation of extreme Brexiteers now deeply embedded in the BBC”.
On Saturday, however, Craig Oliver, formerly David Cameron’s Downing Street communications chief, wrote that Mr Banks “should absolutely be held to account by BBC News and Andrew Marr.”
Sir Craig, who is also a former editor of the BBC’s News at Ten, said: “It is vital in a democracy. I want to hear what he has to say in answer to some tough questions.
“Let’s judge the interview – not try to stop it happening.”
With much of social media disagreeing with him, Sir Craig added: “There seems to be a massive misunderstanding among a lot of people … To be clear: the fact he has been referred to the NCA doesn’t mean all journalism should halt – nor should it.”
The BBC defended the interview in a statement saying: “There is strong public interest in an interview with Arron Banks about allegations of funding irregularities in Leave.EU and the 2016 EU Referendum.
“The Electoral Commission has laid out concerns about this in public and it is legitimate and editorially justified for Andrew Marr to question Mr Banks robustly about them, which he will do on Sunday morning.”
Andy Wigmore, the Leave.EU spokesman and a key ally of Mr Banks, announced that bank statements relevant to the £8m donation had been “released in full” to the BBC, and that the Brexiteers were “looking forward to Sunday’s show”.
This prompted Carole Cadwalladr, the Observer journalist who has been a leading voice in questioning the sources of Leave.EU funding, to challenge Mr Wigmore to release the bank statements to her newspaper as well.
Turning her fire on both the BBC and Mr Wigmore, and hinting at Mr Banks’s controversial contacts with Russians, Ms Cadwalladr wrote: “Great. So we’re going to get the whole Bankski pantomime treatment, is that the plan BBC? Some theatrical pointing at documents?
“It’s a magazine show Andy Wigmore. If you’re being so transparent, why not send them [the bank statements] across to [the] Observer?”
Other Twitter users questioned why the documents seemed to have been sent to the BBC but not the National Crime Agency (NCA).
They also urged the BBC to deny Mr Banks a platform and accused the corporation of a “massive error of judgement” that would allow a “pantomime to take place courtesy of licence payers’ money”.
Some suggested if the interview went ahead, the BBC would lose the trust of the British public.
Remain supporter Bernie Gunther suggested the BBC was “operating against the public interest”, and retired IT project manager James West wrote: “Unfortunately Andrew Marr is no longer a robust interviewer. He merely gives his interviewees a platform to air their opinions and does little to challenge them with evidence. Leave it to the NCA.”
A barrister on Twitter accused the BBC of “interfering in an ongoing criminal investigation”.
“CremantCommunarde” wrote: “The Electoral Commission has not ‘laid out concerns’, you fools. It has said that in their view a crime has been committed.
“They are not ‘allegations’. They are findings of fact by the Electoral Commission after a thorough investigation.”
“The only difference between the UK and a banana republic,” they added, “is that we have to import our bananas.”
Another Twitter user suggested that Banks could subsequently use his BBC appearance to get any future prosecution thrown out of court on the grounds he could not receive a fair trial because anyone who saw the Marr interview would have been unfairly prejudiced against him.
“A suspect in a high level criminal investigation is allowed to go and national television to discuss his case,” the Twitter user wrote. “Then if it goes to court no doubt he’ll then cry ‘trial by media’ or ‘media interference’ in his defence. Great game play eh?”
Other legal commentators, however, pointed out that in practical terms there was zero possibility of the Marr interview falling foul of contempt of court laws banning the publication of anything that might run a “substantial risk of serious prejudice” to a trial.
These laws only kick in when legal proceedings against an individual are “active or imminent”, and it would be hard to argue that that threshold has been met, given that Mr Banks has not been arrested and the NCA investigation has only just started and may exonerate the businessman.
James Chalmers, the regius professor of law at Glasgow University pointed to a legal precedent where the Court of Appeal promptly rejected a defendant’s claim that the interview he voluntarily gave to Sir David Frost amounted to “trial by media”.
In its judgement the Appeal Court was also deeply critical of the “deplorable” 1967 interview.
This, however, seems to have been because it was too robust rather than too soft.
The judges at the time wrote: “He [Emil Savundra] was faced with a skilled interviewer whose clear object was to establish guilt before an audience of millions. None of the ordinary safeguards for fairness that exist in a court of law were observed. They may seem prosaic to those in the entertainment business, but they are the rocks upon which freedom from oppression and tyranny have been established in this country for centuries.
“Trial by television is not to be tolerated in a civilised society.”
Mr Banks has dismissed the allegations against him as “ludicrous” and said the Electoral Commission had acted as it did because it had been put under “intense political pressure from anti-Brexit supporters”.
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