Humphrys: We are not the guilty ones

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The Independent Online

John Humphrys, the veteran presenter of Radio 4's Today programme, criticised the Government and sprang to the BBC's defence yesterday over charges that the corporation was to blame for the suspected suicide of Dr David Kelly.

He dismissed as "nonsense" the assertion by Dr Kelly's local MP, Robert Jackson, that the BBC and Today had pushed the scientist towards suicide by refusing to confirm he was not the source for the defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan's report about the "sexed-up" Iraq dossier. Instead, he hinted, responsibility should be borne by the government officials or ministers who decided to "thrust him into the spotlight".

It also emerged yesterday that the identity of Mr Gilligan's source is now known to two other people at the BBC - Richard Sambrook, the director of BBC news, and Kevin Marsh, Today editor.

Speaking to The Independent on Sunday from his London home, Mr Humphrys was scathing about Mr Jackson's charge that the BBC should take responsibility for Dr Kelly's death

"That seems to me to be nonsense," he said. "After all, it wasn't we who named Dr Kelly; it wasn't we who called him before an inquiry, a committee; it wasn't we who thrust him into the spotlight. To suggest that somehow it's all our fault is bizarre."

Asked about the mood at the BBC, Mr Humphrys replied: "Obviously, a man is dead and people have responded as you would expect. They [the BBC] feel very strongly that, whatever happens now, Dr Kelly's family has to come first. It's moved beyond the day-to-day political nonsense."

Mr Humphrys is not the only media voice to blame the Government for the intense pressure Dr Kelly came under before his death. In Tokyo yesterday, Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, was forced to fend off a series of hostile questions from reporters, including one from The Mail on Sunday who asked him whether he accepted that he had "blood on his hands".

Meanwhile, Peter Preston, the former Guardian editor, who was caught up in a similar row some years ago over his refusal to disclose the source of a leaked document about Cruise missiles, told the Today programme: "The one thing you know as a journalist is that you have to try to protect your sources all of the time, because that's the way that information comes. I would be hard-pressed to find an exception."

Shocked BBC executives convened a series of emergency meetings yesterday to discuss how and when to respond to the news of Mr Kelly's death. Though reluctant to be sucked back into conflict with the Government, Mr Sambrook was said to be privately resigned to having to defend the corporation's corner from a renewed Downing Street onslaught this week.

However, a spokesman said the BBC had no plans to issue any further statements for the time being.

Mr Gilligan was maintaining a low profile, and could not be contacted at his home in Blackheath, south east London. However, all the indications were that the BBC was determined to continue standing by its man.

Praising his integrity, and by implication the reliability of his now notorious 29 May Today programme report on the "sexed-up" dossier, one insider said: "I've never known Gilligan to flam something up on air. I've known him to occasionally flam things up to his editor, as journalists often do, but that's all."

Mr Humphrys' attack was also backed by Rod Liddle, the former editor of the Today programme, who described continued calls for the BBC to name Gilligan's source in the wake of Dr Kelly's death as "indecent".

"The whole point of protecting your source is to stop the sort of appalling thing that happened to Dr Kelly," he said.

"There's been evidence that for some years Robert Jackson has been living on a different planet to the rest of us, and these latest comments prove it. It's virtually the first rule of journalism that you protect your source and that's all the more important when the story is of such magnitude."