The BBC was today accused of failing to alert police to a tip-off one of its journalists received yesterday morning that the House of Commons was to be invaded by pro-hunting protesters.
Shadow defence minister Gerald Howarth said the journalist who had received the information had a responsibility above and beyond her role as a reporter because she was part of a “community” of MPs and press in the building.
He described the BBC as “culpable” of not preventing the invasion, which is being called the worst breach of parliamentary security since a mob invaded the chamber in 1647.
The BBC political editor, Andrew Marr, revealed on the 10 O’Clock News last night that the corporation had been alerted in advance about protesters’ plans to storm the Commons.
But he said the information was not acted upon.
“I have to say that one of the BBC knew about it and didn’t think it terribly important,” Marr said. “Another great hit for us,” he added in a two-way with anchor Fiona Bruce, anticipating any criticism to come.
Sources today said Marr had learned at around 9.15pm that a colleague had been tipped off but that the information was low grade and didn’t appear to justify a follow-up. A BBC executive said there would not be any recriminations against the reporter involved.
“It was a friend of a friend of a friend sort of thing. And it wasn’t just someone who rang up to say this was to happen, it was more along the lines of someone saying it might be worth your while making this or that call,” said a source.
There have been suggestions the BBC was not the only media organisation tipped off, with speculation this morning that a newspaper had also been contacted about the planned stunt.
“Some of the media organisations including the BBC were tipped off, but no action was taken because it was believed to be unreliable information,” BBC reporter Richard Watson said on Newsnight last night.
BBC 1pm news journalist got tip-off
The reporter who received the call was Luisa Baldini, who cut her teeth at Five news and BBC breakfast news and works mainly on the 1pm bulletin. She referred the call to her immediate superiors but the matter was not taken any further.
“She did the right thing,” said a senior BBC source.
The five protesters, including the son of Roxy Music star Bryan Ferry and Luke Tomlinson, an Eton-educated friend of princes William and Harry, are being held in custody following the incident, which was captured live on television and has led to calls for a root and branch review of security at the House of Commons.
BBC executives are this morning conducting a post-mortem but there is a feeling among journalists that they did the right thing by not contacting the police.
Some senior news executives, however, are less equivocal and want to review the situation once they have the full facts.
One source said: “If there was any suggestion that anybody was going to be hurt, then obviously we would have told the authorities.”
The BBC said it gets hundreds of tip-offs a day and it was not its job to pass them on to the authorities.
“Journalists get tip-offs about events all the time. We are not information-gatherers for MI5. The issue here is not whether we contacted the police or not, but whether we should have acted on the information ourselves,” said one BBC source.
Mr Howarth told Radio 5 today that he was not satisfied with the BBC’s response.
“I don’t think it’s any good, someone saying that someone at operational level took a decision not to proceed with this matter. We are a community – of MPs and the press; frankly they should have passed on the information to the authorities. I’m afraid the BBC, in possession of this information, not to have passed it on – I believe the BBC to be culpable,” he said.
It is not thought the information received by the BBC was passed on to senior executives.
According to reports, the protesters undertook a dry run on Tuesday, dressing up as builders, but probably had the help of an insider with a security pass who got them access to the inner sanctum of the Palace of Westminster.
The BBC said today the police had not been in touch about the tip-off to Baldini and refused to reveal whether the call was received from Otis Ferry, one of eight people being held by the police over the incident.
It is believed the first senior executives knew about the tip-off was when Marr made the revelation on the 10 O’Clock News. One source said they believed Marr had gone on air because he was “miffed” he hadn’t been in the loop about the tip-off and recognised it would be seized upon by critics as another embarrassing gaffe for the BBC.
Marr’s admission a surprise to other broadcasters
The admission came as a surprise to other broadcasters, who claimed not to have received the same tip-off. ITV said had it received detailed information about the protest in advance it would have informed the authorities.
The ITV newsroom said last night it had not received any calls in relation to the protest before it happened.
“If we had known, we wouldn’t have kept it quiet,” a spokesman said. Nick Robinson, the ITV political editor, suggested last night that MPs would not be satisfied with the BBC’s explanation.
Sky News said it had not been alerted to the security breach before it happened. “As far as we were aware we had no calls about it and we responded to it as a breaking news story,” a spokeswoman said.