'Today' journalists hit back at former editor

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The Independent Online

Remarks by the former editor of the BBC's Today programme describing journalists on the flagship news show as "wretched" have provoked scorn from its star presenter John Humphrys and previous editor Rod Liddle.

Kevin Marsh, who recently quit the Radio 4 breakfast programme to head the BBC's new college of journalism, voiced his frustration at Today, which he edited for three years, in the BBC's in-house magazine Ariel.

Displaying a frankness that is not typical of BBC insiders, Mr Marsh, said that his new post allowed him to "think about BBC journalism ... Except now it's possible to do that without wretched deadlines and even more wretched journalists getting in the way."

Mr Marsh, who was at the helm of Today at the critical juncture in its history when a report by Andrew Gilligan sparked off the chain of events that led to the Hutton inquiry, revealed his true feelings about his editorship.

"Being editor of Today is a great job, they say. But it's one that makes constant, idiotic demands on you and very quickly drains whatever resources, physical, mental or spiritual, you once had," said Mr Marsh.

In a barbed reference to Mr Humphrys and his fellow presenters, he added: "So, no backward glance from the perfumed groves of academe. No yearning for yet another early morning wrestle with John Humphrys to wrest the Daily Mail out of his grasp. No fond memories of late-night sessions in the Blue Peter garden, filling presenters' wheelbarrows with cash."

Mr Liddle, from whom Mr Marsh took over the editorship of Today in 2003, also came in for implied criticism. Mr Marsh hit out at the "carping" he had endured from "former editors who should know better". He added: "However difficult editing Today was, at least there was the guidance of what your predecessor did, however execrably."

In the latest edition of Ariel, Mr Humphrys and Mr Liddle retaliated. In arch style, the veteran presenter joked: "Inspired by Kevin's example I too have decided to put behind me the grubby business of daily journalism and tiresome expectations of Today's vast audience. I too shall think. How much more satisfying to face the big intellectual challenge without 'wretched' deadlines getting in the way.

"Nor will there ever again be the need to try to read the Daily Mail while Kevin 'wrests it from my grasp'. Why should such high-minded journalists as us bother to acquaint ourselves with a newspaper that helps shape the opinions of a mere few millions?"

Wryly referring to the Hutton inquiry, Mr Liddle pointed out: "In my five years as editor, I never quite managed to bring about a constitutional crisis and the departure of the BBC's director general and chairman.

"So if I were an 'execrable' editor, it must have been in different ways." He added: "I must say I never found the Today staff 'wretched'. I thought they were brilliant journalists and dedicated and loyal colleagues. I miss them even now. I wonder if they will miss him."

A new editor, Ceri Thomas, joined Today on 3 April, when Mr Marsh left to take up his new role. The BBC's college of journalism was set up following an inquiry by Ron Neil, instigated in the wake of the Hutton affair, which led to the resignation of the director general, Greg Dyke, and chairman Gavyn Davies.

The view among BBC insiders is that the Ariel piece had been an attempt to be funny that had seriously backfired. "I think he's pissed off a lot of people. He was trying to be funny, but he has no aptitude with the written word and just came across as crass and whingeing," said one.