BBC presenters' cocaine abuse scrutinised on Channel 4

IT IS the sort of scrutiny the beleaguered BBC needs like a hole in the septum.

Channel 4 is planning to broadcast a documentary detailing the cocaine scandals that have engulfed some of the corporation’s best-known presenters.

The programme, Snorting Coke With The BBC, suggests that cocaine abuse is rife at the BBC and that the corporation fails to take a consistent line when dealing with any high-profile employees who are caught using illegal drugs. BBC executives are understood to be concerned at the corporation being singled out by Channel 4 over an issue which affects the entire media industry, especially at a time when the BBC is under pressure from the government.

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However, the programme has the endorsement of Lorraine Heggessey, the controller of BBC1, who is among the media experts appearing in the documentary.

Ms Heggessey discusses how the BBC handled the drugs scandals involving Richard Bacon, a Blue Peter presenter, and Angus Deayton, the former host of the satirical quiz show Have I Got News For You?

Bacon has relaunched his career since being sacked from children’s television and now presents Top of the Pops, while the BBC is believed to be in negotiations with Deayton with a view to his return.

Ms Heggessey defends the rehabilitation of the presenters, saying: "We live in the 21st century. The reality is that people will take drugs; they will do these sorts of things. I think the viewing public is well aware of that.

"I think most of them are sophisticated enough to understand the decisions we have made, and I don’t think we have been damaged by it."

Snorting Coke With The BBC, made by Blackwatch Productions, a Glasgow-based company, looks back at the different treatment meted out to four presenters - Frank Bough, Johnnie Walker, Bacon and Deayton - after they were exposed by tabloids for dabbling with cocaine.

Bough, who presented the BBC’s Breakfast Time and Grandstand, was sacked after admitting in 1988 that he had attended cocaine and sex parties. He was forced to move to independent television to revive his career.

However, attitudes clearly changed in the following decade at Television Centre, and although Bacon was also sacked when he admitted sampling the drug, it has not barred him from receiving licence fee-payers’ money again.

When Bacon was caught out in 1998, Ms Heggessey, then the controller of Children’s BBC, went on Blue Peter to tell the young viewers why he was no longer on the programme.

In January this year, Bacon was apparently welcomed back into the corporation’s fold, when he was hired as a guest presenter on Top of the Pops.

Ms Heggessey suggests that the BBC has a flexible approach to presenters taking drugs, depending on the type of programme they present.

"As far as children’s presenters are concerned, it is a no-tolerance policy," she says.

The hour-long programme also includes contributions from Mark Thompson, the former controller of BBC2, and Rod Liddle, the former editor of the BBC Radio 4 programme, Today. Piers Morgan, the editor of the Daily Mirror, suggests the presenters who are highlighted on the programme are not just the bad apples in the BBC barrel.

"Frankly, if you made class A drugs abuse a barrier to being a BBC presenter, then I’m afraid you’d be left with probably Moira Stuart, and that would be about it," he said.

Stuart Cosgrove, who is the director of nations and regions at Channel 4, said: "I admit it’s impudent of us to focus on the BBC, but that’s because they are in a unique position - the channel that more than any other has to stand by the notion of family values, whether they are relevant or not.

"Over the last 20 years, cocaine has moved from the very margins of British society to become a mainstream recreational drug. You may not think that’s a good thing, but it’s a fact."

Snorting Coke With The BBC is expected to be broadcast on Channel 4 on 31 August at 9pm. A BBC spokesman said: "It is up to Channel 4 which programmes they make, but we will be watching with interest."