Minister attacks BBC man for `partisan' interview

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A CABINET minister yesterday provoked a full-scale political row with the fiercest personal attack on a BBC journalist for nearly a decade.

Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, accused John Humphrys, presenter of the BBC's Today programme of embracing "open partisanship". Mr Humphrys is one of the broadcasters "poisoning the well of political debate" with his "ego-trip interviewing", Mr Aitken said.

The claims - reminiscent of Lord Tebbit's attack on the BBC's Kate Adie in 1986 - centred on an aggressive interview with the Chancellor, and Mr Humphrys's chairmanship of a meeting about the Government's failure to fund in full the teachers' pay settlement.

Tory sources indicated that this was the first attack on broadcasters thought to be biased against them in the run-up to the General Election. Labour accused the Government of trying to "soften up" the BBC, and promised to monitor interviews to ensure that the corporation "did not cave in". Labour's spokesman for national heritage, Chris Smith, said Mr Aitken had "taken leave of his senses" and John Prescott, the deputy leader, said: "Bashing the media is a common Tory tactic whenever things get desperate for them. It is a further signal of a party that is panicking because it has no message, no purpose and no direction.''

Mr Aitken's attack came in a speech in Broadstairs in which he said it had "become apparent in recent months that some prominent broadcasters have embraced open partisanship".

Referring to a lobby organised by teachers' unions at Westminster last week, he said: "If the BBC's senior political journalists are going to be allowed to chair meetings organised by the Government's political opponents, we shall soon have to rename their organisation The Blair Broadcasting Corporation."

Mr Aitken added that Mr Humphrys's "bizarre breach of the normal convention that political journalists stay out of partisan politics" would not surprise those who heard his interview with the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, on 10 February.

"John Humphrys interrupted him no fewer than 32 times," the Chief Secretary said, adding that Mr Humphrys was "conducting the interview not as an objective journalist seeking information, but as a partisan pugilist trying to strike blows."

Other BBC journalists, including the late Brian Redhead, have been the object of Tory attacks. But Mr Aitken's speech seemed designed partly to chime with recent criticisms of politician journalism made by John Birt, director-general of the BBC. In February, Mr Birt criticised overbearing interviewers who "sneer disdainfully at their interviewees", adding that political coverage is being drowned out by "a cacophony of disputation".

Yesterday Mr Humphrys denied that he had interrupted the Chancellor 32 times and said that Mr Clarke had happily returned to do another interview the following week. Mr Humphrys said that he had simply done his job and that politicians appreciate that "they are not going to be allowed to make a series of party political points".

The appearance at the education rally had been arranged by his agent and he understood - wrongly as it proved - that a Tory representative would be on the same platform. Other participants included David Blunkett, Labour's education spokesman and Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader.

Mr Humphrys said: "I have absolutely nothing to apologise for. I was a strictly impartial chairman."

A BBC spokesman said: "If we had known John was going to chair this meeting, as it developed, we might well have advised against it. We have no doubts about his impartiality or capability as a journalist.

"His role at this meeting seems to have been misunderstood by Mr Aitken. At no time did he express any support for any particular cause." The Clarke interview was "good natured but tough", and there were no complaints, the BBC said.

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