I have defended John Humphrys before. It had been necesary to do so in late 1997-98 after a particularly evasive interview with the then Social Security Secretary Harriet Harman on the BBC1 On The Record program. Humphrys is a stalwart, he has been around in the political interviewing field for sometime and regarded as the same calibre as Jeremy Paxman. During the Major government years particularly from 1992-97 we were used to the bellyaching Tory ministers talking about unfairness and referring to the BBC and the Blair Broadcasting Corporation. I remember a comment from the then Culture Secretary Stephen Dorrell that the “BBC should seek to adhere more closely to the guidelines laid down in legislation.” I remember the comment verbatim because I couldn’t believe the implications. What he was saying is that there was legislation that regulated the BBC’s content, this is therefore legislation that can be ammended, modified or strengthened or even repealed by the government of the day. Since there is no written constitution in this country and therefore no enshrinement of press and media freedoms any legislation governing the media directly consitutes censorship, whether or not it is used to its full extent.

When the Labour Party won the general election in 1997 I’ll grant you being a cynical leftie I was not convinced that this would herald a golden age of anything even approaching socialism but even I was pleased that since we’d finally got rid of the fucking Tories, who had been in charge since I was 7 years old, we might get at least the repealing of the most rabid draconian home office laws and the like. The Labour party’s attitude to the BBC showed very early on that to think we were in any way safe from the old style Tory rule was a grave error of judgement and the treatment of John Humphreys in the wake of the Harman interview empitomised this. Humphrys was lambasted for being an attack dog, for being too harsh etc. etc. The Labour government threatened to withold their ministers in future from On The Record. I was bloody livid with the attitude of the labour MPs it was just like going back to the bloody idiots we thought we’d just got rid of.

I have the letter of thanks from him still framed on my wall. I was proud that I had stood up and let myself be counted. I wrote Humphrys a 3 page letter stating that I was very interested in politics but not an MP, I therefore did not have the wherewithal to ask ministers questions and call them to account for their actions and to justify their policies and therefore it was up to people like himself to do it for me and the thousands like me. To interview in a cosy setting only asking approved and comfortable questions would be a betrayal of the BBC’s responsibilities. I said that I thought the fall of the Conservative government was in no small part down to their consistent failure to be able to stand up to scrutiny at the hands of the heavyweight interviewers.

The current problems stem from comments made by Humphrys in an after-dinner speech (BBC report) where he spoke in a relaxed and informal manner about some of the mainstream politicians. Said speech was then reported to The Times newspaper by a Downing St. advisor that happened to be present. Humphrys also gave his opinion that the BBC had been correct in its assertion that Downing St had ‘sexed up’ the dossier on Iraq’s weapons capabilities, the one that included the infamous 45 minute claim. It was this assertion by the BBC before the Iraq war that the government had misled the public, that led to the Hutton enquiry which exonerated the government and censured the BBC leading to the resignation of the Director-General and Chairman. As time has gone on the Hutton enquiry has looked more and more of a whitewash as more of the claims made in the dossier look to be factually inaccurate. Humphrys statement was therefore perfectly valid.

Humphrys went on that he felt it was the job of BBC to take on the government, this is correct, contrary to what the politicians might like it IS the BBCs job to take on the government of the day whoever that may be, especially in these days where no effective parliamentary opposition exists. If the politicians cannot stand up to scrutiny from the heavyweight interviewers then one has to question either their ability to do the job or the policies they are there to defend.

To my mind it is when Humphrys stops incurring the rancour of the politicians that one might feel it is time to hand on the baton.

Song Of The Day ~ Manu Dibango – Hibiscus*
*[A great track, any of you into Jazz or Pink Floyd fusions, you should give it a listen]