9 September 2005
However much John Humphrys gets for his after-dinner speaking (reputedly around the £10,000 mark), it seems like pretty lousy value for money, considering it's just a series of insults and ancient, recycled jokes. Take this ancient gag: ‘I said to somebody once, “Why do you all take an instant dislike to [Peter] Mandelson?” and he said, “It saves time.”’ Yes, we're sure that familiar-sounding exchange really happened. (An almost identical exchange takes place between the M*A*S*H characters Trapper John and Frank Burns back in 1972. It's also been attributed to Barbara Bush, talking to an unpopular White House chief of staff.)
The comments that got the egotistical Humphrys into trouble this week weren't particular interesting. Apparently John Prescott isn't a clear speaker: '[People] can't understand a bloody word he says'. And Alistair Campbell was 'a pretty malevolent force'. Gasp. Fending off criticism, Humphrys claimed that 'Nobody has ever complained about the sorts of things I say because it is done with affection and is obviously light-hearted.'
This will come as news to Gordon Brown, 'easily the most boring political interviewee I have ever had in my whole bloody life'. Humphrys also makes an unpleasant jibe about Brown winking at him with 'his one good eye'. (Brown lost the sight in his left eye after being kicked in a school rugby game.) Yes, there's nothing funnier than a light-hearted reference to losing your sight in one eye.
But overall, the comments were not that different to commonly-held perceptions of New Labour types: Brown is boring, Campbell is a bastard, etc. The idea that Andrew Gilligan was substantially right about the dodgy dossiers (and that Blair lied) isn't exactly controversial these days either.
More interesting than the comments themselves is the way the whole hoo-hah came about, which was largely the work of one Tim Allan. Allan runs a PR company and was Tony Blair's deputy press secretary from 1994 to 1998. Recently he was approached by Blair to become his director of communications. He also believes that the media is too negative in the way it treats politicians. Particularly, we suspect, New Labour politicians.
Allan received a flyer inviting him to an event held by the Commercial Directors Forum that contained some of Humphrys' comments, made in a speech given on 8 June. Allan rang the Forum to confirm that the comments were accurate, and they sent him a tape of the speech. Allan then passed it on to The Times.
We can only speculate on the exact details of what happened, but it's fairly likely that Allan would have pitched the tape thus:
'I'm not saying you *should* put it on the front page, but “BIAS AT THE BBC: HUMPHRYS MAKES BIZARRE PERSONAL ATTACKS” is a story that you really should run with. In the public interest. On the front page.'
It's also hard to imagine that Allan didn't consult with his chums at Labour HQ. If you're in the frame for the job of director of communications, then surely you're not going to do anything that might jeopardise your future? Either way, the upshot is that the BBC rebuked Humphrys, calling the comments 'inappropriate and misguided'.
So should Humphrys have made the comments? The answer is 'no' in the sense that they're a bit rubbish (especially, we would reiterate, for £10K.) But whether BBC journalists and presenters should be allowed to say what they want in their own time is another matter.
It's a grey area to say the least. It's unclear as to what responsibilities a high-profile journalist or presenter has. Is it bias if Anna Ford says 'I've lost faith in Tony Blair. I'll be voting Lib Dem next time round…'? (So long as she didn't say it on the 10 o'clock News.)
As an individual, Humphrys doesn't have any obligation to hold personal views that are positive, or even unbiased, about anything in particular. If there's a problem here, it's a BBC matter about whether Humphrys' extra-curricular activities affect his ability to do his job. Quite obviously if he kicked off an interview with Gordon Brown with the words 'Right, you boring one-eyed bastard, try and stop me falling asleep this time…' he would be being a little unprofessional.
But he's not going to. However, this hasn't stopped New Labour developing a bunker mentality about all media outlets, not least the BBC. The Labour Party has a strong case that the press is biased, after years of unflagging criticism from the predominantly right-wing, and flagrantly biased, newspapers. But this doesn't apply to BBC news programmes, which play things fairly straight. BBC News 24 is capable of coming up with Day Today-style inanities, and some BBC presenters are noted for aggressive interviewing, but political bias? Nah.
Responding to criticism in the media as though it's some sort of constitutional crisis just makes New Labour look utterly po-faced. It also makes them look as though they've got something to hide.
Interestingly, this whole media storm in a teacup occurred in the same week as junior home office minister Caroline Flint appearing on various news programmes gushing about how England's recent cricketing success and the Olympics bid were going to lead to an upsurge in interest in British sport… which is good for public health because the blob children will all want to be Michael Vaughan.
We can't recall any other government that was so obsessed with publicity, good and bad. In the same week we've seen one New Labour type try to shoot down a journalist who is only really well known among Radio 4 listeners and other media types, and another attempt to claim that cricketing success is somehow connected with health policy.
It's almost as though New Labour wants to embed itself in every aspect of life, and has forgotten where the boundaries of government are. But given their obsession with publicity and the media, maybe politics really is just showbusiness for ugly people.