LABOUR leaders have held a secret meeting with the BBC to warn the corporation against unfairly favouring the Scottish National Party before the Holyrood election.
Shortly before the formal election campaign began, Labour sent a high-powered delegation to BBC Scotland headquarters in Glasgow to give senior editors a "strong warning" that the corporation's coverage of Scottish politics was slanted in favour of the SNP.
Some Labour insiders believe many mid-ranking BBC Scotland staff are SNP sympathisers, and used a pre-election meeting to express their unease about aspects of the BBC's political coverage.
The four-strong Labour team was led by Andy Kerr, the health minister, and Douglas Campbell, a senior adviser to Jack McConnell, the First Minister. Also present were Lord George Foulkes, vice-chairman of the Labour campaign, and Tony McElroy, a party official.
"They were told in no uncertain terms that a group of Nationalists in the BBC was skewing their coverage against Labour," said one source.
Now the Scottish Parliament has been dissolved and the formal election campaign has been declared, the BBC is under legal obligation to afford all parties equal air-time.
But those restrictions did not apply while parliament was still sitting, and some in the Labour hierarchy became concerned that the BBC's coverage was hurting the party's campaign.
In particular, some Labour officials were angry that a pre-election visit to Scotland by Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, last month was given relatively little attention by the BBC compared to the prominence it was afforded by newspapers, including The Scotsman, and by commercial broadcasters.
The hour-long meeting took place at BBC Scotland's headquarters in Queen Margaret Drive, Glasgow, on 23 March.
Present on the BBC side were Atholl Duncan, head of news and current affairs; Alasdair MacLeod, the then parliamentary editor; John Boothman, head of political programmes, and Brian Taylor, BBC Scotland's political editor.
A BBC Scotland spokesman said: "It was a very friendly meeting and a number of issues were raised. We have similar meetings with all the parties and do so on an ongoing basis."
BBC Scotland executives privately denied any suggestion they were accused of bias towards the Nationalists.
One said the Labour delegation "raised a couple of issues" but insisted the tone of the meeting was cordial. "Occasional friction with the parties is part of the political cut and thrust," the executive said.
The Scottish Labour Party said it had not complained to the corporation, but confirmed it had held a meeting a month ago.
"The meeting was about planning for the election, it was quite technical and dull. It lasted longer than it should have for a Friday afternoon," a spokesman said. He added that Labour had no problem with the BBC's coverage so far, but if there was one it would have been that "nobody is scrutinising all of the parties".
He added: " We recognise that the BBC, like any large organisation, has people of all political persuasions."
The SNP last night accused Labour of "lashing out" at the BBC. "It is the last throw of desperate politicians to blame the broadcasters for their bad coverage, which is entirely explained by Labour's own dispiriting and negative campaign," said a Nationalist spokesman. "Rather than lashing out at BBC Scotland, Labour would do better to ask searching questions of the people running their appalling campaign."
While relations between Labour and the BBC in Scotland are generally amicable, the similar relationship in London is often strained and sometimes downright hostile.
Some senior Labour figures in London still harbour a grievance against the BBC over the David Kelly affair and the corporation's coverage of the government's case for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Some BBC executives still believe they were unfairly treated over the affair: Greg Dyke, the director general, was forced to resign in the wake of the Hutton Report into Dr Kelly's death.
BUSINESS DEALS BLOW TO LABOUR
LABOUR suffered a setback yesterday when a survey of Scottish business people could not find any who thought the party's politicians were looking after their interests.
The survey by the Forum of Private Business found 92 per cent of smaller businesses felt they had not benefited from the micro-management of the Scottish economy from Edinburgh and an extraordinary 100 per cent thought the Scottish Labour Party did not look after their interests.
There was some good news for Labour in the finding that 69 per cent disagreed with the SNP's plans to levy local income tax at 3p in the pound and 67 per cent opposed independence.
Rebecca Leavers, of the business organisation, said: "It is clear that the respondents feel unrepresented and that they are discontent with the way in which their companies are being hit by the management of the Scottish economy."
A Labour spokesman said the poll was not "representative" of the views of the business community.
STUC UNIMPRESSED BY SURPRISE VISIT
THE Scottish National Party suffered a significant knockback yesterday after a failed attempt to grab the trade union vote from under the nose of Labour.
Nicola Sturgeon, the deputy SNP leader, swept into the annual meeting of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, although she was not invited to address delegates.
Her visit was timed to follow a keynote speech by Jack McConnell, deflecting attention from his message.
However Grahame Smith, the general-secretary of the STUC, said
: "Nicola Sturgeon did not even have the courtesy to tell me she was coming."
Earlier the STUC voted to reject independence and Mr McConnell likened the SNP's local income tax to the poll tax.
He said: " I believe in progressive taxation, and without a tax on property the wealthiest get off scot-free."