The BBC and Channel 4 fear Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill could interfere with their TV programming by imposing politically correct quotas of actors and presenters.
Chiefs at both publicly funded channels are concerned that the requirements of the Bill’s “Public Sector Equality Duty” will infringe their editorial independence.
They believe the Duty would force them to hire actors, presenters and production staff on grounds of their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation, rather than suitability for the programme.
Press reports have speculated this could see popular shows such as BBC 2’s Top Gear (which already appeals to women despite an all-male presenting team) being “hijacked to enforce social engineering”.
The Bill currently exempts a number of public bodies, such as the UK Border Agency, from the Equality Duty, but the list does not include the two state-owned broadcasters.
The Conservative culture spokesman, Jeremy Hunt MP, has now written to the culture secretary, Andy Burnham, seeking assurance that the Duty will not cover broadcasting content.
Mr Hunt’s letter says: “Allowing broadcasters creative and intellectual freedom over the content of their programmes is vital in a free society.
“It is a real concern that the BBC and Channel 4 are not included in the list of public bodies exempt from the requirement of the Bill.
He adds: “Both broadcasters have an important role in focusing attention on important social issues, but editorial independence must be sacrosanct.”
A spokesman for Mr Burnham’s Department said: “Insofar as the Equality Duty is concerned, the full list of public bodies subject to the duty is something we are discussing further with relevant organisations.
“We will continue those discussions with the BBC and other public service broadcasters over the course of the next few months regarding which of their functions should be covered.”
A BBC Trust spokesman agreed that, “it would be helpful to have clarification of the government’s intentions and we are discussing that with them.”
Published last Friday, the Equality Bill has already sparked protests from business leaders, who say it will force higher costs on business in the midst of a severe recession.