At 36, Ben Bradshaw has, at least until now, been a rising star at the BBC. "He was touted as the next Jeremy Vine," said one insider. "He has a good broadcasting voice, he's intelligent, accessible, sweet-looking and pleasant."
But serious national fame for Bradshaw came properly only last week. It emerged that the BBC has been maintaining him on what amounts to paid leave since September, when he was taken off the air after being selected to fight a parliamentary seat for Labour. For five months, Bradshaw did nothing for the corporation. Worse, he spent his time on the stump in the Exeter constituency. There was the inevitable outrage at the notion of licence-payers funding one of Tony Blair's new model army.
BBC executives rushed to save face and hurriedly announced that Bradshaw had suddenly been found a job - he's due back at his desk this morning to work on a project to integrate radio and television business programmes. Eventually, at the end of the week, the top brass threw up their hands and finally admitted management failure in not reassigning Bradshaw sooner.
But the predictable row, touching raw Tory nerves about alleged prejudice against them within the BBC, was a short-lived wonder. The reality seems to be that the BBC bureaucrats were in fact so conscientious in avoiding any accusation of bias that they dithered endlessly about what to do with their bright but embarrassing young star.
In any case, Bradshaw is not the first high-profile BBC figure to cross over into politics. Tony Benn was a BBC producer. Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, Tory grandee and vice chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, was a BBC reporter when he won his first seat. Likewise, Tory MP Roger Gale had been a Blue Peter presenter before the charms of Westminster took precedence over those of sticky-backed plastic. And standing as a parliamentary candidate for the Liberals did not stop Sir Robin Day hosting Panorama and Question Time. Meanwhile, there were few raised eyebrows last month when Francis Halewood, the deputy editor of the Today programme, joined Tory Central Office. Who worries that Howell James, former head of corporate affairs at the BBC, is now a right-hand man in John Major's private office? And most newspapers - for all their vitriol about the BBC - employ journalists who will be seeking election this year.
In fact, the row about the licence-payer subsidising Ben Bradshaw has obscured a much bigger story. "If I win," he explains, "I will be the first openly gay candidate ever to be returned to Westminster." Surely not, is the typical reaction to this claim. After all, Labour's shadow health secretary, Chris Smith, is known to be gay, as was Matthew Parris before he jumped from the Tory back benches to the Commons press gallery. But Bradshaw is right, because both of them came out only several years after being elected, when their political reputations were already established. The savaging of Labour's Peter Tatchell in the Bermondsey by-election 13 years ago - based on the mere suspicion that he was homosexual - demonstrated the dangers, at least in the past, to unknown politicians of being openly gay.
Yet, it is extraordinary how slow, this time around, the normally homophobic tabloids have been in rounding on Bradshaw, particularly since it is highly likely that he will overturn the 4,045 majority of the retiring Tory MP, Sir John Hannam. The press has had plenty of temptation to have a go. Bradshaw's Tory opponent, Adrian Rogers, an Exeter doctor in private practice, relishes his reputation as the scourge of homosexuality. He has described it as a "sterile, disease-ridden and god-forsaken occupation". And he has pulled no punches in attacking "Bent Ben" and his continued employment at the BBC as a mark of the "cultural degenerates working there to destabilise society".
Bradshaw is clearly worried by the Tatchell experience, but hopes he will be spared. "I never compare myself to anyone in that way. What happened to Peter was awful. I don't agree with a lot of what he stands for, but he deserves every sympathy for the way he was vilified. Times were, however, different then," says this Blair loyalist. "Labour was at the height of its loony-leftness."
The reticence of the tabloids towards Bradshaw may reflect a growing recognition that attacking minorities can be bad for business, that their readerships are more complex than in the past. This more sophisticated approach was signalled by the Daily Mail, for example, when it surprised everyone and championed the family of Stephen Lawrence, the murdered black teenager, against his alleged five white attackers.
Bradshaw himself thinks that his openness about his own homosexuality is vital. "The tabloids seem more interested in hypocrites. They have not targeted Chris Smith and seem to have very little interest in me." The fifth and youngest child of a Norfolk vicar and a primary school teacher, he says that he has known that he is gay - and his family has accepted the fact - since he was 19. "It has never been a secret."
But he admits that the skills he has picked up working in the media have also helped. A "fairly devout" Anglican, he's so clean-cut, with gleaming smile, smart suit and well-cut hair, that Nick Ross would fit comfortably into his shoes. "Being sensible and presentable obviously calms people's concerns and helps overcome whatever prejudices there are. People say to themselves, `Ben's a good bloke and a regular guy.' "
And, of course, he's well known in the media world, which also protects him from our worst excesses. "He's a bright, likeable, normal guy, not some screaming queen who flaunts his homosexuality," says a fellow gay BBC reporter.
And he is careful to litter our interview with plenty of reassuringly conservative messages. He stresses the importance of his family. (He almost quit his languages degree at Sussex University to help his mother, who was dying of Alzheimer's disease). He reminds me several times that he has nine nieces and nephews and six godchildren, who often come to stay with him.
Bradshaw does have hopes of improving the lot of gay men and women. He is the top interview in this month's edition of Gay Times, in which he attacks as a "sad bastard" a gay member of the Tory Campaign for Homosexual Equality for acquiring a wife after winning a selection battle to fight a parliamentary seat.
He seems to have a political programme in his mind. "From a legal point of view," he says "I'd like to see equality under the law on a whole range of things. I'd like to see equalisation of the age of consent, but not necessarily at 16. How about 18?" But when drawn on other issues, he retreats warily: "I'm stressing all the time, I'm the Labour Party candidate. I'm not into the ghettoisation of politicians and single issues. The bulk of my energy is going into the big issues concerning the people of Exeter, like the crisis in the NHS."
The question remains, of course, why such a successful journalist would wish to be a politician, a group increasingly outshone by media stars. Bradshaw is certainly ambitious: "I happen to be gay, like some people happen to be left-handed. It hasn't stopped Chris Smith becoming a frontbencher and it won't stop me."
But perhaps among leading media figures there is recognition that what can be achieved through observing and commenting on society remains more limited even than the slight powers of a humble MP. If Ben Bradshaw wins in Exeter, he will combine all the media skills and contacts acquired over 10 years with the gravitas of being an MP. "I covered the last general election for The World At One," he says. "And I don't want to wake up again the morning after the next election to another Tory government and feel that I didn't do enough to stop it happening"n