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Tim Luckhurst

Sabotaging a star

British Journalism Review
Vol. 17, No. 2, 2006, pages 27-31

Tim Luckhurst is a columnist and contributor for newspapers including the Scottish Daily Mail, The Times, The Independent and The Independent on Sunday and is a former editor of The Scotsman. He is the author of This is Today – A Biography of the Today Programme (Aurum Press), and started his journalistic career on the programme as a producer and editor. He has won two Sony Gold Awards for Radio News.

Contents - Vol 17, No 2, 2006

Editorial - Listen to the Lord 3

Bill Hagerty - Kinnock: Where Clarke was right 7

Close-up on the BBC
Will Wyatt - Stand up and be counted 15

Michael White - Grumpy Humpy should bow out 21

Tim Luckhurst - Sabotaging a star 27

Francis Jezierski - Unequal war of the web 33

Jane Brown - Fast stalker 39

Roger Bolton - Mind your language 44

British Museum - Gone and (largely) forgotten 50

Stephen Bax - Beware the press in times of war 53

John Campbell - Why papers of record are history 59

Stewart Purvis - Clean sweep in the Ukraine 65

Anthony Delano on Dennis Griffiths 70

Martyn Gregory on Patricia Holland 72

Michael Leapman on Angela V John 74

Liz Vercoe on Julia Hobsbawm 76

Martin Rowson on Mark Bryant 78

The way we were 32

  Of the Today programme journalists directly responsible for Andrew Gilligan’s fateful early morning interview about the so-called dodgy dossier, only one remains in post. Presenter John Humphrys was the other half of that poorly-choreographed duet, and there are not a few senior executives in BBC Radio and BBC News who wish Humphrys had joined Gilligan and, subsequently, Today’s then editor Kevin Marsh in exile from frontline broadcasting.

Anxiety to see the back of Humphrys is always denied by official BBC spokesmen. The new Today programme editor, Ceri Thomas, continued the tradition in his otherwise risibly uninformative first interview with Media Guardian saying: “He’s seen off six Today editors – I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I was the seventh.” But official support can no longer disguise the truth. Humphrys, the 62-year-old veteran former foreign correspondent and only genuine household name in the Today line-up, is considered inconvenient by many of the keenly populist, non-confrontational types who now run BBC news and current affairs.

One anecdote reveals a lot. After Humphrys’s bruising recent interview with Conservative leader David Cameron, about which 200 of Today’s regular peak-time audience of more than 2,000,000 complained, the presenter received a telephone call from the programme. Already at home in Hammersmith, relaxing after his umpteenth pre-dawn start, Humphrys was surprised to hear the voice not of Kevin Marsh, his then editor, but of one of Today’s assistant editors. He was astonished by the message conveyed. The delegated minion informed the presenter that a motorcycle courier was delivering a copy of his interview with Cameron to his front door so that Humphrys could “listen to it again”. One of the presenter’s allies – and this is not code for John Humphrys himself – describes it as “the equivalent of an invitation to contemplate the gravity of one’s wrongdoing before being admitted to the headmaster’s study for a thrashing”. Humphrys refused to accept the delivery and the message was swiftly followed by a call from Kevin Marsh, declaring himself anxious to clear up any confusion.

The point is not that John Humphrys is pompous and hierarchical – of Today’s male presenters, he least deserves that description – but rather that his employers would not previously have contemplated treating him so. It has become a habit only in recent years. Ever since Kevin Marsh provoked Humphrys to fury by excising an element of his recorded interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury without telling the presenter, the BBC has developed a regrettable tendency to treat John Humphrys as a problem as much as an asset.

In the worst recent example, the corporation criticised him for making a humorous speech about politicians aboard a cruise ship in Southampton harbour. He had made jokes at the expense of John Prescott’s inarticulateness and Peter Mandelson’s shortage of friends. They were intended exclusively for a private audience but were leaked by Tim Allan, a former spin-doctor to the Prime Minister. In the past, the BBC would have dismissed such blatant trouble-making as malicious. Instead it decided that Humphrys was guilty of inappropriate behaviour and sought a promise that he would never do it again. Humphrys refused and, a few days later, repeated the speech almost verbatim.

As George Orwell observed more than 60 years ago, such independence of mind has long been inconvenient at the BBC. But official wariness has recently been replaced by a more virulent strain of paranoia. The reasons are political. Although Conservatives are more wary of James Naughtie – once described to me by former party chairman Michael Ancram as having “a natural aversion to the Conservative Party” – New Labour detests Humphrys. The party targeted him from the very beginning of its term in office. The first example of a campaign of loathing that has put BBC executives under constant and gruelling pressure dates from December 1997, when then Social Security Secretary Harriet Harman was under attack from backbenchers demanding that she abandon her proposal to cut benefit payments to single mothers. The Prime Minister had been forced to the despatch box to defend a reform that seemed as Thatcherite to the Labour Left as his school reforms and NHS Trusts do today. But Blair delegated Harman to face interrogation on the Today programme.

The interview lasted approximately eight minutes and the Secretary of State sounded nervous and insecure. Humphrys made no concessions. He is a purist who regards his questioning of ministers as a service to the public. Interrupting repeatedly to keep her focused on the issue, he eventually sought to end Harman’s evasions with the blunt statement: “If you cut something, you make somebody worse off. It’s a fact.” It was not a fact Harriet Harman was willing to concede. Having tried again to elicit candour, Humphrys said: “This is Alice in Wonderland stuff, isn’t it...? With the greatest of respect you’re answering the wrong question.”

In opposition Labour had revelled in the forensic evisceration of Conservative ministers by Today presenters, lauding Humphrys in particular as a fearless fighter for truth and justice. Now the Party’s Director of Communications, David Hill, fired off a furious letter to Today editor John Barton, concentrating his attack on one man. The “John Humphrys problem” has “assumed new proportions”. “We need to talk now.” Hill revealed that Labour was “considering whether, as a party, we will suspend co-operation [with the Today programme] in order to make absolutely sure that your listeners are not going to be subjected to a repeat of the ridiculous exchange”. That response took the BBC by surprise. Many news executives had thought the world had changed when John Major was expelled from Downing Street. They’d recalled Jonathan Aitken’s attack on Humphrys for “poisoning the well of democracy” and assumed life under New Labour would be incomparably better. Many were prepared to forgive the extraordinary campaign of intimidation Labour had run in opposition. They imagined the party’s ruthless tactics had been temporary weapons in the battle for power.

A torrent of abuse

In fact Labour’s rapid response unit activity intensified. It was more sophisticated than anything Today had experienced in the days when Nigel Lawson accused Brian Redhead of voting Labour, and Dennis Thatcher kept a cartoon of Broadcasting House leaning to the left. John Barton’s response was robust, but from that moment on, when meeting Labour politicians, BBC executives expected to hear a torrent of abuse directed not just at Today but at John Humphrys himself. Labour’s spin-machine believed in personalising a vendetta. Humphrys’s unclubbable remoteness from politics and his resolute determination to get answers make him a natural target.

One former Today editor, still senior at the BBC, describes the phase that began in 1997 as “tougher, more persistent and more exhausting than anything we had previously faced from British politicians”. When the most recent Today editor to vacate the position, Kevin Marsh, was first considered for the job following Barton’s departure, Alastair Campbell wrote to the head of BBC News Programmes alleging Marsh was “closed to reason” and guilty of peddling an “anti-Labour follow-any-old-Tory-guff agenda”. On that occasion Marsh was overlooked in favour of Rod Liddle.

There are young and foolish producers at the BBC and older but equally foolish Labour fellow travellers working for national newspapers who dismiss the bullying and the threats of the early Blair era as ancient history. They are wrong. This was the atmosphere in which the present-day BBC news elite grew up. It is why they remain wary of political pressure and ultra-cautious in their handling of political complaints. None of his editors at the BBC has ever told John Humphrys to go easy on a political interviewee. Many senior personnel in Radio News, including its admirable head, Stephen Mitchell, would be horrified by the notion. But the relentless aggression they have dealt with, culminating in the agony of the Hutton inquiry and the charter renewal discussions that followed, has created an atmosphere in which self-censorship is a constant danger. It is most likely to be exercised by junior producers and output editors who imagine that a non-confrontational approach to an interview or story is most likely to please the bosses. They are too often right. This is the context in which criticism of Humphrys thrives.

Is his personal style blameless? My impression is that Humphrys interrupts politicians more often than he used to during the years when I produced and edited Today, but it is plain that he does so for an excellent reason. Labour ministers have been media-trained to an unprecedented degree. Chancellor Brown can – and often does – broadcast live for 20 minutes without answering a single question. Lesser ministers, including Hazel Blears, Douglas Alexander and Patricia Hewitt, are keen apprentices. If one thing unites the Blair and Brown wings of the Labour Party, it is their mutual determination to exploit the media as a propaganda tool and limit its role as a sponsor of democratic debate.

Humphrys represents the best of the British tradition of adversarial debate. He believes synthesis emerges best from a no-holds-barred clash between thesis and antithesis and distrusts predetermined consensus. He neither likes nor dislikes politicians, but makes a point of not socialising with them. Humphrys has proved on countless occasions that he can distinguish between interviews that require rigour and those that demand a compassionate tone. He does not apply his interrogative technique to vulnerable, grieving or nervous members of the public – that’s reserved for those who exercise power or seek it. Even then, unlike Jeremy Paxman, with whom he is often compared, he does not approach interviews by asking himself why the guest in front of him is lying.

The BBC knows that the overwhelming majority of the Today programme audience respects and admires Humphrys. He reminds the show’s overwhelmingly middle-aged listeners of the days when colleagues including Brian Redhead, Sue MacGregor and Peter Hobday made the presentation team a genuine partnership of equals. That has not been true since MacGregor retired. Humphrys is dramatically better than any of his colleagues. That’s why successive Today editors have asked him to conduct the programme’s main agenda-setting political interviews. Ceri Thomas would be extremely foolish to disturb that arrangement.

I remember the sadness everyone in the Today studio felt on the morning of December 7, 1993, when Brian Redhead presented his final programme. Some of us imagined that the programme would suffer long-term injury. It did not, illustrating that Today really is bigger than any individual. It will survive when John Humphrys decides not to renew his contract, but the BBC should avoid doing or saying anything that will accelerate that day. When Redhead was forced out, in circumstances that would have become far more controversial had he not died so soon afterwards, he left two colleagues of comparable stature. Only Humphrys is left. Today must find brave new male and female presenters before it risks offending him again.