Wark kept on BBC probation over bias fears

LEADING TV presenter Kirsty Wark was placed on probation by worried BBC chiefs a year ago as a direct result of her controversial holiday with Jack McConnell and will continue to be closely monitored.

Concerned corporation governors put Wark under "review" amid fears that her relationship with the First Minister, together with her closeness to former Labour leader Donald Dewar and her role in the Holyrood parliament building, could be damaging to the image of the BBC as an impartial broadcaster.

A close watch was placed on the Newsnight presenter's performance last year after Scotland on Sunday published a picture of McConnell, Wark and their families during a New Year break at her Spanish villa.

Wark was subjected to long-term behind-the-scenes scrutiny by her own managers, a team of broadcast executives, who checked out her performance on air for anything which might give rise to accusations of bias.

A hitherto confidential document, obtained by Scotland on Sunday under freedom of information laws, details exchanges among the BBC board of governors over the affair. It lays bare their fury over the embarrassing row, which was communicated to director general Mark Thompson.

At their first meeting after the pictures of Wark on holiday with the McConnells were published in January 2005, the minutes said: "The Board recognised that Kirsty Wark was highly talented and widely respected. Her integrity was not in question but her actions had put the BBC in a difficult position."

The account continued: "The issue for the BBC was one of perception of impartiality both among the public and politicians. Governors discussed management's handling of the matter and were assured that management would assess her interviewing and presenting roles on a case-by-case basis to address the issue of perceptions of impartiality."

In a further signal of the widespread concern over the issue, the minutes added that: "The Board asked management to ensure this process remained rigorous."

Yesterday, a statement issued by the BBC said: "Kirsty Wark is a journalist of the utmost experience and integrity and we continue to have every confidence in her ability.

"In the context of past events we still continue to review the position regarding interviewees and any issues regarding impartiality as would be the case with all our presenters."

A BBC spokeswoman later added: "We want to make clear that Kirsty Wark has our full support."

Corporation insiders said that the step of subjecting any one presenter to such a long period of scrutiny, together with the unusual step of allowing a statement to be issued on the subject, was a sign that management were "exceptionally sensitive" about Wark and allegations of bias.

Scotland on Sunday understands that managers within BBC News had been "very annoyed" about the revelations and had devised "a kind of quarantine and rehabilitation period" which saw her taken out of the front line of the news operation for several weeks and then eased back in.

But one BBC insider said last night: "The BBC hates giving the impression that it is being told what to do and that it is bowing to pressure.

"In all such cases the BBC will publicly dismiss the outside world's criticisms but then say, 'Don't you ever do anything so stupid again!' to the broadcaster in question.

"While keeping someone under observation is common in such cases, it can be a precursor to ditching someone from a programme because it allows them to build a case to defend themselves in case of a comeback."

Another insider said: "Look, it's all about the viewers' perception. If people think that she is not impartial then she can't do it."

Nationalist MSP Alex Neil, who was critical of both Wark and McConnell during the 'Villagate' saga, said the BBC's actions would help to clear up any doubts over the corporation's stance. He said: "The BBC have got to be tough on making sure that their political interviewers are both impartial and seen to be impartial.

"Luckily for Kirsty, she was taken off the main part of the election coverage and she doesn't do many political interviews up here any more. But it would be inconceivable, if someone had to interview Jack on Newsnight, for her to do it."

Details of the trip sparked an intense "cronyism" row at Holyrood and within the BBC, taking in complaints about politicians' declarations of gifts and over Wark's impartiality. The Tories led the charge, questioning whether it was "appropriate for a prominent BBC political journalist to be so closely associated with one party".

The Villagate row erupted after Wark invited McConnell and his wife, Bridget, to spend Hogmanay with her and her partner Alan Clements at their 150,000 house in Alaro, Majorca. The families also holidayed together at the villa in December 2002.

It subsequently emerged that Wark and her family had twice been overnight guests at Bute House, McConnell's official residence in Edinburgh.

IWC Media, the company which was owned at the time by Wark and Clements, a long-term friend of McConnell's, earned 664,130 from 22 executive and quango contracts in the past five years, including 186,000 to produce The Gathering Place, a documentary about the Holyrood parliament, and 72,000 for a history video.

Yesterday, when asked if she felt she was under any kind of probation by the BBC, Wark said: "That's not my view."