Instead of doing what previous chairmen of the BBC would have done - having read The Times story, had a quiet chat with the director-general and then let him deal with the issue - Grade went for the headlines in typical Grade style. He announced that he had told Mark Thompson to set up an investigation so when it came up with some pretty silly findings it was Grade who, deservedly, got the blame and was widely ridiculed.
The whole saga has sinister undertones which have left the BBC leadership looking vulnerable to criticism that, at the very least, it has lost its sense of humour if not its collective nerve.
Let's examine what actually happened. Humphrys speaks at a private event, for which no doubt he was well paid, and makes a few jokes about politicians of all parties, suggesting that most of them have to lie to get to the top. Tim Allan, Alastair Campbell's former deputy, hears about this, lies to get hold of a copy of a tape from the organisers of the event and then leaks it to, of all people, Tom Baldwin on The Times. It is then splashed across two pages.
Baldwin has long been Downing Street's favourite journalist. In the Campbell era he was fed story after story by Downing Street and religiously wrote what he was told. It was Baldwin who effectively revealed Dr Kelly's name after Campbell decided his name should be put into the public arena. And it was Baldwin who reported back to Downing Street what he was told at a private briefing for Times senior editorial figures by Richard Sambrook, the then head of BBC News. This led to other journalists on The Times complaining about Baldwin's behaviour.
When I was still running the BBC I once asked Robert Thomson, Baldwin's editor at The Times, why he didn't sack Baldwin as he wasn't an independent journalist at all but a mouthpiece for Downing Street. He replied "he gets good stories" which missed the whole point. The reason that Baldwin got good stories from Downing Street was that he was Campbell's man; he acted as their messenger. Campbell's whole approach as the Government's director of communications in Downing Street was to reward the journalists he saw as "loyal" and Baldwin was the most loyal of all.
But even Thomson was embarrassed by Baldwin's antics this time when it was shown that his reporting of what Humphrys had said had been "selective" and, two days after they broke the Humphrys story, The Times ran a leader dismissing the whole story as inconsequential.
Campbell and his henchmen like Allan always hated the Today programme and in particular Humphrys. I remember Campbell telling me once that he refused to listen to the Today programme. Why? Because Humphrys gave ministers a hard time when they appeared on the programme and wouldn't report the world according to the Downing Street spin machine and Campbell hated that.
The BBC doesn't emerge from the whole affair with a great deal of credit. Michael Grade was always a man with a good sense of humour until he took on the job as chairman of the BBC, since when he seems to have had a humour bypass operation. Instead of laughing off Humphrys' speech and The Times story, which is what it deserved, he has undermined the BBC's very independence by making the organisation look servile to the government of the day.
Since he became chairman Michael has changed his tune on a number of things, one of which is the way the BBC reacted to the whole Kelly affair. On a number of occasions he has criticised both the story and the way the BBC dealt with it, and yet when he appeared on Question Time while the affair was happening - and before he was chairman - he said very different things.
On Question Time he said "I applaud the governors of the BBC. I wish I'd had them when I was at the BBC when we were going through Real Lives and everything else, because the first time there was ever a sabre rattled by Downing Street in our direction the governors shopped the management straight away.... I applaud Gavyn Davies and the governors for standing up to Downing Street."
By jumping in with both feet on this occasion, Grade has only added to the feeling that in the post-Hutton world the BBC has lost its nerve. I am not sure that is true, but there is no doubt that many people in the world outside the BBC now believe it to be true and that should be of great concern to the BBC.
There are a few senior people at the BBC who must have wondered what was happening when Michael Grade demanded an inquiry into the infamous Humphrys speech - they are the people from BBC Radio who were present when Humphrys last delivered the exact same speech.
The occasion was when John Humphrys was being made a member of radio's Hall of Fame. Like all good after-dinner speakers he used a speech that he had delivered several times before. All the great and the good from BBC Radio were there to listen to him make jokes about politicians lying and all thought it was very funny. They then forgot all about it until last week.
No doubt they now all agree with their leader that it was a totally "inappropriate" speech and that Humphrys was out of order. It's funny they didn't recognise that before Michael Grade's intervention.Reuse content