Matthew Norman's Media Diary

My speech for the defence
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The Independent Online

I first met Tim in Bournemouth at the 1998 Labour conference, by when he'd left his post as Alastair Campbell's deputy to become personal press officer to Elisabeth Murdoch. Although he'd had a trying evening, having minutes before been told "If you don't put that away you'll be arrested" by the WPC who caught him peeing in a flowerbed outside the Highcliff hotel, and although slurring very slightly, Timmy generously carved 20 minutes from a frantic schedule to educate me about my professional shortcomings, delivering a persuasive lecture on the nature of successful satire. This in mind, it's clear that the Humpo affair, far from being a fiasco for Timmy, was a cunningly conceived and neatly executed satirical gesture.

After all, is it conceivable that someone with a background in an administration that worships Deniability above all other gods, would have been imbecile enough to request the tape of such an inoffensive speech himself, before passing it to The Times, unless trying to make a point about the incestuous relationship between No 10 and the Murdoch empire? Of course it isn't. With one cute manoeuvre, Timmy (the name is a diminutive not of Timothy, oddly enough, but of Times) has contrived to ridicule that newspaper by illuminating its status as New Labour's house journal; to harm the Government by reminding us of the spite and malice that contributed so richly to Dr David Kelly's death; and, by provoking a fresh outpouring of respect and affection for arguably our greatest broadcaster, to cement the position of John Humphrys. And all that with a single phonecall. Genius barely covers it.

NOW THAT I've had this chance to set the record straight, we appeal to all those who employ Timmy's PR and lobbying firm Portland to forget the whole thing. Draw a line under it, as they like to say in Downing Street, and move on. That's the hope, anyway, albeit the omens aren't so good. There is no word yet as to whether his major account, Sky Television, is planning to fire him (given Mr Murdoch's ferocious commitment to the Humphrys brand of independent journalism, this cannot be ruled out). But another lucrative client, Eurostar, is known to be livid, its communications director Paul Charles promising to summon Timmy "to do some explaining". Well, it's all been explained now.

No one would appreciate the satirical majesty of him losing a vast chunk of business - when all Humpo has endured is a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, we'd-better-pretend-to-have-told-you-off-with-the-Charter-renewal-imminent phonecall from his bosses - more than Timmy himself. Even so, we would ask Mr Charles to think of Portland staff with less highly developed senses of irony who might lose their jobs, and let the matter lie.

BACK VERY briefly to The Times, which has relaunched its T2 second section. There are those who seem baffled by the huge type, but this is malicious exaggeration (on one page last week, I counted 27 words), and I think we should all applaud a paper prepared to go the extra mile for its partially sighted readers.

ENCOURAGING NEWS that a broadcaster barely less gifted than John Humphrys has declared himself in the field to replace the late Richard Whiteley as presenter of Countdown. He is Derek Thompson, the fantastically bright anchor on Channel 4 Racing. Although well down a betting market headed by 1-2 odds-on chance Desmond Lynam, TV's Thommo is a titan of the airwaves. Best known until now for being criticised by the premium phonelines regulator for a tipping service - Thommo went on to ridicule this baseless attack by losing a tipping contest against a West Highland white terrier - there has long been a feeling in the industry that his talents are wasted on horse racing, and Countdown could well be the perfect outlet. That or continuity man on one of the smaller Belgian cable channels.

A SENIOR bod at Radio Five Live is in touch to correct, or possibly clarify, last week's item about the station leading news bulletins with Michael Owen's transfer to Newcastle United while others were concentrating on the destruction of New Orleans and the hundreds of deaths in the stampede in Baghdad. In fact it only led one bulletin, and then the day before the disaster in Iraq. One too many, some might think, but that's no excuse for sloppy reporting.

FINALLY, I am intrigued to hear that John Birt - the top-ranked blue skies thinker impertinently dismissed as "a beached grandee" by Melvyn Bragg last week - has been delighting audiences with tales from his days as a civil rights warrior, marching for gay equality and other important causes. Rumours that this Zelig of social justice was there the day Martin Luther King was assassinated, and that he spent several years in a tepee outside the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square, have yet to be full investigated. But if anyone has any memories of his lordship in his Wolfie Smith era please get in touch. Pictorial evidence would be especially welcome.

m.norman@independent.co.uk

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