Matthew Norman's Media Diary

Me and Libby: the heat's really on
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The Independent Online

I am on the verge of succumbing to a fit of the vapours after a dramatic exchange with Libby Purves, presenter of the weekly collation of self-publicists, pluggers and faux-eccentrics that is Radio 4's Midweek. Writing from her home in Suffolk, Libby launches her first strike by accusing me of cowardice over the non-appearance of an e-mail address at the end of one of my pieces, before moving smoothly through the gears.

"I appreciate that, in your particular niche, you have to get by on a diet of press releases and random spite," - Libbers, old thing, miiiiaooow! - "but you were unfair - not on me, presenters are a matter of taste, I have bêtes noires, too - but on the production team and the majority of guests." (Last week's cast included a man who raids people's homes to perform theatre in their sitting rooms.) "You are entitled to hate Midweek's tone, but you're not entitled to sneer at every poor bastard who comes on, nor the decent professionals who book them. So don't be so fucking pathetic, Matthew..."

The reply did little to assuage her, least of all the suggestion that this hackneyed declaration of showbizzy altruism (you know the old line, "It's not me I'm upset for, I'm big enough to look after myself; it's the little folk working so tirelessly behind the scenes...") was unworthy of her. But let's pause for breath, and come back to it below.

A WORD of sympathy for another titan of radio with a neat line in self-parody. If you missed Nicky Campbell on Just the Two of Us, the BBC1 show on which celebs performed duets with pros (in his case, the soul singer Beverley Knight), it must be said that his "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on Thursday may have been the worst cover of the ballad since Linda Ronstadt's unintentional comedy classic. Having said that, his earlier rendition of "Edelweiss" was a triumph. But on Thursday, tears welled in his eyes when he had to say, "So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu (to yieu and yieu and yieu-ieu)", after being voted off, and you wonder why such a sensitive soul would put himself through being judged by the public on something he takes so seriously. Still, let no one deny, he has balls. As for that ambition to present Newsnight, probably best let it go.

BACK TO Libby, and her second missive, sent by e-mail. "Thanks for answer," this begins. "It answers a question that was in my mind, ie, yes, indeed, you ARE a bit of a creep." Hardly an original point, but worth making all the same. "I am not defending 'little folk behind the scenes'. They're not little folk. They're the ones who make the programme. They book bloody good guests. I could not give a flying fuck what you think of my tone or broadcasting manner..." - if only she was this feisty with the twerp who crossed the Atacama Desert in a supermarket trolley pulled by a three-legged llama, you could almost listen - "...but I will not have it suggested that Chris and Louise book wallyish guests. Yours with rather fewer best wishes, L."

As we will see below, a subsequent attempt at bridge-building, involving the suggestion that this hands-off Libby must have had a personality transplant since a forceful stint editing Punch, was to backfire.

ONCE AGAIN, events make it rather difficult to reach the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport to discuss her reneging on the deal to keep live Test cricket on terrestrial TV, after being lobbied by the Sky TV boss James Murdoch. As media-related scandals go, this one seems destined to take a back seat. Meanwhile, there is no truth in rumours that Tessa Jowell's department has negotiated the sale of the entire BBC archive to Silvio Berlusconi's Rai network for a timeshare on a Ligurian villa, a turbocharged Fiat Uno and half a bottle of sambuca.

INCIDENTALLY, AN apology to Tony Blair for repeating here that he once spent hours on the phone to Berlusconi, trying, but failing, to broker a satellite- TV deal for his (Blair's) guv'nor Rupert Murdoch. In fact, the call was to Romano Prodi, then Italian PM, about a satellite channel owned by Berlusconi. If any impression was given by this false fact that Blair was happy to act as middleman between two media billionaires with whom he wished to ingratiate himself, sincere apologies for the mistake.

BACK, FINALLY, to Libby, and her third and final communiqué: "a) I never edited Punch, what the hell are you talking about?" it begins. Then: "b) The system is that producers book guests, and presenters are briefed 2-3 days ahead. Presenters neither rule the roost nor swan in at 8.57." And: "c) If you actually look at guests ... you will find some remarkable and serious people... What I say is not queeny but wholly sincere. If you can't get that, tough. Still, I'm glad to have got under your skin. Goodbye now, forever..."

For the record, although this gifted ironist did write for Punch, it was Tatler she edited, and her staff back then will warm to the meek team-player of today. Now she's had her right to reply, let that be an end to it. Never again will I ask if anyone can cite a more depressing 12-word sentence than, "And now on Radio 4, it's time for Midweek with Libby Purves". Not for a month or so, at least.