Move The Apprentice to avoid election campaign, says BBC Trust

Following a complaint from the shadow culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, that Sugar’s government role as a Labour peer conflicted with his BBC work, the trust’s editorial standards committee today ruled that there had been no breach of the corporation’s editorial guidelines.

However, the BBC Trust said that the corporation must be sensitive about the scheduling of The Apprentice and the forthcoming Junior Apprentice in the run-up to the next general election, which must be called before 3 June 2010. This year The Apprentice ran between late March and early June.

In its ruling, the BBC Trust committee said the “combination of Sir Alan’s roles as star of a BBC entertainment show, government adviser and peer and the proximity of the next general election poses a greater than normal risk to the impartiality, integrity and independence of the BBC in relation to the broadcasting of The Apprentice and Junior Apprentice next year”.

“The committee also notes that there is now less than a year before the next general election and that this increases the sensitivity caused by Lord Sugar’s dual role. Scheduling decisions are a matter for the executive. But the trust is clear that when scheduling next year’s transmission of The Apprentice and The Junior Apprentice the executive must give due consideration to the implications of showing the programmes in the months immediately before a general election.”

Hunt said he was still not happy with Sugar’s continuing association with The Apprentice following the BBC Trust ruling.

He appealed to the trust after saying he was not happy with the response of director general Mark Thompson to the issue.

“The BBC Trust has admitted what we have known all along, that Alan Sugar’s government appointment risks the impartiality, integrity and independence of the BBC,” Hunt said.

“Whatever restrictions the BBC seeks to put on his political activities, Lord Sugar is taking the Labour whip and has an official government role. It’s amazing that the trust has therefore not explained why licence fee payers should fund a programme hosted by someone who will help formulate, promote, and endorse government policies. The trust has disappointingly missed an opportunity to show it has teeth when it comes to enforcing impartiality obligations.”

A spokesman for BBC management said it would “of course bear the trust’s view in mind” about not airing The Apprentice during an election period.

Sugar this week took his seat in the House of Lords as Baron Sugar of Clapton in the London borough of Hackney.