'Today' showdown leaves Des Browne in tight spot

The Defence Secretary receives a mauling at the hands of John Humphrys
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The Defence Secretary Des Browne has been accused of misrepresenting key details of a controversial court case regarding treatment of service personnel on active duty during a mauling at the hands of John Humphrys on yesterday's Radio 4 Today programme.

In a testy encounter between Humphrys, radio's Grand Inquisitor, and the Defence Secretary, both attempted to talk over each over as Humphrys pushed Browne for answers.

It also resulted in a piece of doublespeak from Browne worthy of Sir Humphrey Appleby of Yes Minister. Pressed by Humphrys on troops who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan because of inadequate equipment, Mr Browne said: "Well all of those cases have been examined and in each case which has been examined where the lessons have been learned we have learned those lessons."

A judgement on Friday ruled that British troops serving abroad were protected by the Human Rights Act, and this could have been breached if they weren't supplied with proper equipment.

It was brought by the family of Private Jason Smith, 32, a reservist from Hawick, who died of heat exhaustion while stationed in Basra, as temperatures climbed to 60C (140F).

During an inquest in 2006 the coroner, Andrew Walker, criticised the Ministry of Defence for the death, blaming "serious failures" such as giving the wrong hydration information and inadequate pre-deployment fitness tests. Mr Browne was also attempting to prevent coroners from using the words "serious failures".

Private Smith's family brought the legal action to secure a second inquest, as not all documents had been revealed by the MoD.

The court also ruled, however, that service personnel were subject to the Human Rights Act while on active service.

During yesterday's interview, in which Mr Browne repeatedly tried to avoid answering why he was appealing against the verdict, the Defence Secretary said: "This case came to court because the family challenged the coroner's decision.... He was the defendant. We were an interested party. It transpires that he accepted there needed to be [another inquest] because of an error he made.

"The family wanted to raise the application of articles one and two [of the Human Rights Act] ... and our lawyers said this was an opportunity to deal with this particular phraseology in relation to these rules because a clarification of these rules are important.

"I am completely supportive of coroners' inquests and investigations... and, if there weren't coroners inquests or investigations, there are Board of Inquiry reports, conducted independent of ministers or politicians by the military, and I believe those reports should be shared with families and are shared with families."

Jocelyn Cockburn, of Hodge Jones and Allen, who acted for the Smith family, took issue with some of these comments, however.

"The family wanted the judge to deal with the question of whether armed forces deployed abroad are protected by the Human Rights Act. The MoD sought to argue that the judge should not look at this," she said

"It wasn't only the coroner's failings that led to these proceedings, but the MoD's actions. For instance, they failed to provide disclosure, by withholding the Board of Inquiry report to Jason's family and the coroner.

"I've been shocked at how dysfunctional the armed forces' inquests have been, made worse by the lack of openness on the part of the MoD."

Anger on air

More rows that made TV and radio history:

Sir John Nott

Stormed out of a BBC TV interview with Sir Robin Day in 1982, after being described as a "here today, gone tomorrow minister".

Nigel Lawson

On Radio 4's 'Today' programme in March 1987, presenter Brian Redhead held a minute's silence in response to Lawson's suggestion that he was biased towards Labour.

Kenneth Clarke

An aggressive interview in February 1995 resulted in 'Today' presenter John Humphrys facing accusations of "poisoning the well of democratic debate".

John Reid

An interview with John Humphrys in June 2003 quickly descended into a fierce argument over the Government's exaggerated claims about weapons of mass destruction.

Henry Kissinger

Left in the middle of a debate on Radio 4's 'Start the Week', back in June 1999, after several bad-tempered exchanges with presenter Jeremy Paxman.

Neil Hamilton

Famously slammed the phone down on BBC breakfast news presenter John Nicholson in 1999, when angered by being grilled about cash for questions.

Jonathan Owen