Following an ensuing vetting row, a BBC plan for a Question Time programme to feature the final two candidates has been “cast into doubt”, as questions around the corporation’s screening process abound.
The controversy hit fever pitch after it became clear one of the featured callers on the debate had a history of making allegedly anti-Semitic remarks on Twitter and of attacking Boris Johnson, while another was a former Labour Party activist with extremist views.
A source close to Tory leadership frontrunner Boris Johnson told the Daily Telegraph: “It hasn’t helped the BBC’s case for hosting a Question Time-style debate.
“Candidates will now be casting doubt on the Question Time format and the balance and impartiality of the BBC audience.”
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And former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith argued several viewers selected to ask questions during the BBC debate had been “anti-Semitic, Corbyn-supporting and anti-Boris”.
The influential backer of Boris Johnson told the Daily Mail: “The BBC must apologise and someone must be brought to book. It is appalling.”
He added to the Daily Telegraph: “Many of us detected a strong level of bias in the general presentation aimed at Boris Johnson.
“This smacks of a deliberate attempt to give the Labour Party an opportunity to damage the leadership process.”
No date has been agreed for the BBC Question Time event, which the broadcaster says will include live audience questions and corporation stalwart Fiona Bruce hosting.
Forced to defend its vetting process, the BBC said Imam Abdullah Patel’s Twitter account related to anti-Semitic comments had been removed before they selected him for the programme.
The BBC said the tweets had come to light after Mr Patel re-activated a previously inactive Twitter profile in the aftermath of Tuesday’s debate, and had not been visible to its researchers before then.
The broadcaster said: “Had we been aware of the views he expressed he would not have been selected.”
Meanwhile Mr Patel insisted he was not aware he had criticised the Jewish people but stood by his censure of Israeli policy.
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Regarding the Labour activist, who had once stood as a councillor for the party, the corporation said: “A background in politics doesn’t disqualify anyone from taking part in a debate show.”
But furious Tory leadership candidates have threatened to boycott future events hosted by the broadcaster, suggesting they would be more likely to agree to a hustings event on ITV, Sky or Channel 4.
A friend of Sajid Javid said of Tuesday night’s hustings hosted by Emily Maitlis: “It wasn’t an edifying format and if they want to make a pitch for another TV debate you would want it to be a bit more thought through.
“It will play into our thinking as to whether we agree or don’t agree to another BBC event. ITV, Sky and Channel 4 all want to do a head to head as well and the Channel 4 debate on Sunday was very well done.”
A source close to Jeremy Hunt said: “We are reserving judgement but it’s fair to say we didn’t think it was brilliant.”