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Farry bids to take the heat off Alliance over plot to hijack BBC’s Talkback

By Claire O'Boyle

The BBC was facing fresh questions last night after allegations that it regularly asks political groups to source party activists to appear in its audiences.

The Alliance's Stephen Farry yesterday repeated his party's claims that Alliance wasn't alone in encouraging supporters to take part in programmes.

He also claimed the BBC often asked parties to get people to fill the seats on their shows.

"Let's be realistic, parties will do this," said Dr Farry on the BBC's Stephen Nolan Show.

"I suspect most, if not all, political parties in Northern Ireland will encourage their members to phone in to participate in shows.

"On the other side of the fence, the BBC and other organisations will come to political parties to ask them to go into audiences.

"Most of the audience you will see, many of the people are from political party backgrounds put forward by political parties and questions are coming from a party political slant. That's the context."

Dr Farry's comments came after the Belfast Telegraph exposed the Alliance Party phone-in plot, which saw the party's top Press adviser encouraging activists to call in to Radio Ulster's Talkback programme to ask "tricky" questions of other parties and offer "softballs" to Naomi Long.

He encouraged them to use "fake names and locations", and to keep their party links under wraps.

However, it isn't the first time the planting of political activists on BBC shows has landed the broadcaster in hot water.

In 2013 there was public outcry when a hardline Labour supporter was said to have been planted in the audience of Question Time, only to attack then-Ukip candidate Diane James.

Labour staffer Amy Rutland branded Ms James "disgusting", claiming Ukip prey on vulnerable people by "scaremongering".

Yesterday Ukip said, as upsetting as the incident was, encouraging supporters to take part in programmes was done by all parties. The party's equalities spokesperson Margot Parker also backed Dr Farry's claim the BBC itself regularly asks political groups to source party supporters to appear in its audiences.

However the MEP said Ukip stopped short of encouraging people to use "fake names and locations".

Ms Parker said: "Broadcasters want robust debate, and the public deserves to hear politicians being put on the spot. All parties encourage supporters to take part in programmes, and broadcasters like the BBC invite parties to provide participants in order that debate is lively. All good.

"But to encourage members to use fake identities and personalities to deceive the public is cheap and is what brings politics into disrepute. The Alliance party should be deeply ashamed, and whoever proposed this tactic should consider their position."

The BBC declined to comment in depth on the claims, instead referring back to a statement issued earlier this week.

It said: "As we have said, our radio phone-in programmes regularly attract a high volume of callers who want to ask questions or share their views live on air.

"In line with our editorial and elections guidelines which we take seriously, our production teams do their best to assess and identify each caller as rigorously as possible to ensure they contribute to a fair and balanced discussion, which our presenters chair live."

The BBC said that it engages with a wide variety of members of the public, commentators, political parties and others "to ensure fair and balanced representation and breadth and diversity of opinion".

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