NATIONAL ASSEMBLY Economic Development Minister Andrew Davies was at the centre of a major row today as it emerged that he ordered a civil service press officer to accuse BBC Wales of "sexing up" a story.
Mr Davies was under fire not only for bullying the BBC in a manner reminiscent of the UK Government's attack on the Corporation over its coverage of the Iraq war, but also for instructing a civil servant to write a letter of complaint that was purely political.
Details of the most bitter row between the Assembly Government and BBC Wales since the Assembly's establishment five years ago can be revealed today after The Western Mail obtained the full correspondence under the Assembly's access to information code.
On January 16 this year - less than two weeks before the Hutton Report was published and following BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan's allegation that the dossier on Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction had been "sexed up" - the Assembly Government's then head of news Tim Hartley wrote a furious letter of complaint to Mark O'Callaghan, head of news and current affairs at BBC Wales.
The letter accused the BBC of deliberate distortion in a report on the Objective One European aid project that was broadcast the previous day on the Radio Wales Good Morning Wales programme. The BBC story had carried an interview with Tory economic development spokesman Alun Cairns in which he suggested that a shortfall in an Objective One budget could result in core Assembly budgets like health and education being "raided".
In his letter Mr Hartley said, "Yesterday's coverage of the Economic Development Minister's report to his committee on Good Morning Wales was misleading, unfair and inaccurate ... The leading questions to (Professor) Dylan Jones Evans in an attempt to confirm your headlines were inappropriate, as was your lack of scrutiny of opposition politicians. Their assertions were barely challenged at all. It was instructive to note the difference in approach taken in interviewing opposition members on this matter on Good Morning Wales - sympathetic, enabling questions allowing the opportunity to develop a response - compared with the interview with the minister on Good Evening Wales which was conducted by your presenter in a hectoring, argumentative fashion with constant interruptions.
"This is a story created by the BBC presenting an inaccurate claim and asking opposition parties to react to that claim. That is not public service broadcasting, it is the worst form of tabloid-style journalism. The BBC should report the news and present the facts impartially. It should not create a story and perpetuate inaccuracies in order to 'sex up' a broadcast."
In his response, Mr O'Callaghan robustly defended the radio report. He said, "Regarding your point about 'leading questions' put to Professor Dylan Jones Evans, the professor is an acknowledged independent authority who reiterated his anxieties in The Western Mail of January 21. All our other guests, regardless of their political allegiance, were treated with a broad consistency. It is important that you distinguish between factual reporting and opinions expressed by opposition parties.
"I might point out that Mr Davies was invited to appear on Good Morning Wales but declined. We made the decision, in the interest of balance, of reporting verbatim the extended statement issued by your office. He then decided to appear on Good Evening Wales. Phil Parry (the presenter) responded as robustly as the minister. I did not consider it rude considering the minister had made himself available for scrutiny and enjoyed ample opportunity to put his case.
"... Due impartiality lies at the heart of the BBC.
"... In conclusion, I disagree that the measured development of this story was, as you put it, 'the worst form of tabloid journalism'. I also believe your use of the words 'sex up' with regard to the broadcast are wholly inappropriate."
Mr Hartley wrote a further letter saying he was unhappy about the way his complaint had been handled. He stated, "It would be helpful to know what element of independent consideration was given to the concerns expressed in my letter. The consideration of our complaint seems to have fallen short of the standards of independent complaint that anyone should have a right to expect from the BBC."
Mr O'Callaghan responded that the complaint had been subjected to a "vigorous internal investigation procedure", but said a further complaint could be made to the BBC in London. On April 22 Mr Hartley wrote to Mr O'Callaghan saying the matter would not be taken further.
Huw Brodie, the Assembly official handling the matter, told us, "I am authorised to inform you that the decision (to send the letter) was taken by Andrew Davies. Advice on the drafting of the letter was sought from and/or given by officials in Press Office and special advisers, and it was checked with officials in the Department for Economic Development and Transport for its factual accuracy."
We asked the First Minister whether he thought use of the term "sexed up" was appropriate and whether he thought the episode represented unacceptable political interference in the work of civil servants.
Instead of a personal response from Mr Morgan, we got a statement from an Assembly Government spokesperson which said, "The correspondence speaks for itself; the matter is at an end and we do not propose to comment further. The letter was agreed by the Assembly Government. We do not disclose who drafted particular phrases in letters.
"It is entirely proper for special advisers and ministers to be consulted on drafts where appropriate."