Humphrys might not like it, but he should stick to the 'Today' job

Michael Brunson on why BBC journalists can't complain if they take on extra-curricular activities and then land in hot water
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The Independent Online

Back in 1981, for example, when I was finding my feet as ITN's diplomatic editor, I decided to turn a freebie visit to New Zealand into some pocket money, and The Times printed a piece I wrote. They offered me further work, but since I'd broken my ITN contract by failing to seek permission for the original piece, I ran the idea past my bosses. They turned it down flat, and did the same with many similar requests.

I remember Stewart Purvis, one of my editors, making his view clear: the company paid me good money to be a top-flight correspondent, and anything which diverted me from that course was out of the question. That still seems a good rule. I think it is nonsense to suggest a journalist's freedom is compromised because his employer expects to receive 100 per cent of his professional effort.

How irredeemably old-fashioned that must seem to the mega-stars of today's television news. For a start, I have to admire their stamina. Frankly, I found that exhaustion was one of the perils of a TV correspondent's job, particularly when I was covering Westminster. Very occasional pieces of freelance work, which ITN usually only sanctioned when it saw some direct benefit arising for the company, were as much as I could handle. Yet Messrs Humphrys, Marr, Paxman, Simpson and others all seem to have the most vibrant of second careers, writing books and columns, delivering lectures and chairing conferences, despite the fact that, after the Hutton affair, the BBC suggested there would be a curtailment of such activity.

Yet the Corporation seems either unable or unwilling to rein in its senior people, and where the BBC leads, others follow. Most editors in television news now allow their correspondents similar leeway; witness Nick Robinson's columns in The Times during his stint as ITN's political editor - approved, no doubt, in these days of competing celebrities, to make sure that the BBC's Andrew Marr didn't make all the running with his column in The Daily Telegraph.

But what's the harm in Marr going on about Mr Snuffles, his family's pet hamster, or Robinson describing the foibles of politicians? There, though, you have the danger, as Humphrys discovered. Once correspondents, especially those who are working within public service broadcasting, appear to be throwing their impartiality to one side with such comments as "All you've got to do is to say 'John Prescott' and people laugh", or, more seriously, by suggesting that Andrew Gilligan got it right after all, you are in the danger zone. Fine for Rory Bremner; not so fine for a senior BBC man.

Humphrys protests that his address to a group of PR executives was "a good-humoured, light-hearted" speech, and adds: "I was saying nothing that I haven't said before in front of countless politicians and reporters." In which case, it's surprising that someone hasn't stitched him up before. It is certainly no defence these days for public figures like Humphrys to suggest that what they say or do was never meant for publication. During his time as Tony Blair's press secretary, Alastair Campbellsaid that, for him, there was no such thing as "on or off the record" because he always assumed that every single thing that came out of his mouth would be made public.

Yes, you can accuse the New Labour crowd - people such as Tim Allan, Campbell's one-time deputy, who played a large part in revealing what Humphrys said - of being a humourless bunch. There is also a whiff of double standards when the likes of Mr Allan are offended by the Humphrys speech but are happy, as far as I know, that Tony Blair has promoted the civil servant Louise Casey to head the Government's "Respect" unit, despite her own "light-hearted" speech about binge drinking. Yet Humphrys should scarcely be surprised. You're always in danger when you enrage people who don't see the funny side. Better, perhaps, to go back to the old ITN rule of buttoning your lip and getting on with the day job.