Greg Dyke on Broadcasting

Who needs more protection - politicians or journalists?
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The Independent Online

Did BBC Chairman Michael Grade really launch an attack on Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys when he delivered the Hugh Cudlipp memorial lecture last week? I read the lecture and it makes no mention of this, so any reference to their form of inquisitorial journalism clearly happened in the question and answer session which followed.

Did BBC Chairman Michael Grade really launch an attack on Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys when he delivered the Hugh Cudlipp memorial lecture last week? I read the lecture and it makes no mention of this, so any reference to their form of inquisitorial journalism clearly happened in the question and answer session which followed.

But it just so happened I was delivering a lecture to students and staff at the London College of Communications just two days later and many of them had been at Michael's lecture and were bemused by the press coverage.

He was certainly asked about Humphrys and Paxman's style of questioning but was much more equivocal in his answer than certain journalists have reported. He clearly had some concerns, and did say he was worried about Paxman's statement that when he interviews politicians he asks himself "why is this bastard lying to me?".

But according to people who were at the Grade lecture, he also said that he felt that the Paxman/Humphrys style of interviewing only reflected Britain's style of confrontational politics which isn't exactly what was reported in certain newspapers.

Much more interesting is the identity of the person who asked the question: it was none other than John Lloyd, the author of a book called What Are the Media Doing to Our Politics. Now John has an interesting background; when he was a student he once invited Mary Whitehouse to have sex with him in a television studio, and as a former communist he has all the certainties that a background in that sort of politics gives you. He has a very black-and-white view of the world, and that's the fundamental problem with his book and the campaign he is running.

There is clearly a need for a debate on the state of the relationship between journalism, and particularly broadcasting, and politics. But John's whole thesis is based on his belief that all the problems with that relationship are the fault of journalism and journalists like Paxman and Humphrys.

In his book Lloyd uses as one of his most important examples of the media's misuse of politicians Gilligan's reporting of Dr David Kelly, which he says was fundamentally flawed. Not one to let the facts stand in the way of his theory he completely fails to mention the Butler report which not only showed that what Dr Kelly told Gilligan was all true but that our whole democracy is threatened by the way Tony Blair runs the Government; probably more so than by the declining relationship between politicians and journalists.

Lloyd also fails to take on board the impact of the arrival in Downing Street of Alastair Campbell who, until Blair was forced to sack him, was without doubt the third most powerful person in Government after Blair and Gordon Brown. He was given unprecedented powers by the Privy Council to control all the Government's information services and he did so in a bullying and unpleasant way.

For seven years Campbell decided which ministers said what and where. A charismatic and likeable man, he rewarded his friends in journalism and was ruthless in the way he treated journalists who didn't play it his way. He liked some papers and not others. For instance, when the Daily Mirror got the exclusive story that Cherie Blair was pregnant and phoned Downing Street for confirmation, Campbell gave the story to his mates at The Sun.

His hostility to the Today programme came long before the issue of weapons of mass destruction; his hostility to Gilligan started when Andrew broadcast a series of stories which the Government and the defence establishment didn't want in the public arena. As a result Campbell branded him as "gullible Gilligan" for broadcasting stories that were true but embarrassing.

So when John Lloyd wants to attack journalism for being too aggressive with politicians, he ought to take on board whom they were dealing with in a government more obsessed by presentation than any of its predecessors.

Bad idea means bad news for ITN

ITV chief executive Charles Allen has never been famous for being subtle but his threat to get rid of ITN as ITV's news provider is about as unsubtle a form of negotiation as you can get. He is basically telling the 60 per cent owners of ITN that if they don't sell their shares to him at a cheap price he will take away ITV's business and in effect destroy ITN.

So how will his partners react to this blatant threat? My guess is badly; why would organisations with the reputations of Associated Newspapers, Reuters and United Business Media be willing to be bullied by Allen? I suspect all three would sell their shares if he offered them a fair price, but if he carries on as he is it's much more likely they will call his bluff.

His idea that ITV will take its news in-house at a cheaper price when the current contract with ITN ends in 2008 is about as far-fetched as you can get. Not only would it cost him more but he also has to write off his own 40 per cent share of ITN. Personally I can think of no faster way of further damaging ITV's reputation for news.

Allen should move in the opposite direction and reinstate the ITN brand on all the ITV news services. ITV News - as the news services on his channel are now called - has no reputation or brand image at all.

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