A media storm of one's own

If John Birt's comments have been taken out of context, whose fault is that? `The manufacture of stories is a result of the increase in current affairs spac e'
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On Friday, a senior public figure made a speech, which he summarised in an article for a Saturday newspaper. Although the comments were a set of generalisations, the media understood that the speaker was using a "code", which they easily cracked:the public figure was clearly criticising his closest colleagues. Their reports replaced his code with specifics. The office of the public figure responded by objecting that the story had been "hyped", his comments taken "out of context". Consumers of the media will recognise here a fairly common life-cycle of a modern news story. The important difference in this case is that the public figure in question was John Birt, director-general of the BBC and therefore editor-in-chief of Britain's largest news-gathering organisation. Even more surreally, his speech was actually about the life-cycle of a modern news story. Mr Birt said: "Journalists must beware of hyping the artificial. A politician hints at a policy difference with colleagues... acrisis blows out of nowhere, like a tornado."

Well, this sounds very much like what happened to the director-general, who got his own spit blown back in his face. He was certainly only hinting when he spoke of "overbearing interviewers who sneer disdainfully at their interviewees" and reminded us that "individual MPs and parties have stood before the public and been elected by them, which [journalists] have not". Like, indeed, "a tornado", the press interpreted this as a direct criticism of Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys and as an instruction to BBC journalists to go soft on Tory ministers.

Were journalists who made this assumption "hyping the artificial"? I don't think so. It is fair to point out that the speech and the related Times article covered many other aspects of journalism - including "the columnist at his or her desk pontificating arrogantly" - but Mr Birt is an experienced enough journalist to understand that the "sexiest" section would be the one that seemed to betray the director-general's unease with the treatment of ministers by his senior presenters. This is how the remarks were widely understood - with shock and joy respectively - in the BBC and the Conservative Party.

Let me, at the risk of arrogant pontification, try to indicate humbly why Mr Birt is seriously wrong about this. The first important consideration is that, in the short history of broadcasting, the demeanour of interviewers has been a reflection of national manners. When journalists wore morning dress and asked the Prime Minister "What subject you would like to address tonight", this was merely an extension of accepted social deference towards politicians. The high theatre of a Jeremy Paxman interview on Newsnight - the voice and body language veering between boredom and disbelief - is just as logically a product of an age of anti-institutionalism and questioning of authority.

What most astonished BBC current affairs producers about their leader's speech last week was that their own postbags and polling indicate a desire for the barbecue rather than the sun-lounger to be laid on for ministerial visits. Any complaints which thedirector-general may have been acknowledging are likely to be coming from politicians rather than the public. In that respect, it can be said that, in their attitude to media relations, modern politicians broadly divide into "bruisers" and "whingers". Among the bruisers are Heseltine and Clarke. Among the whingers are Major, Howard and Gummer. The whingers include those who have become most associated with flouncing out of the studio or the wounded phonecall or note to the director-general.

There is something very striking about these squads. The bruisers line-up contains some of the most successful and authoritative politicians of their time. The whingers selection features most of the weakest and accident-prone. From this, it can be concluded that substantial politicians will be able to look after themselves in a studio.

Clarke and Heseltine are not known for complaining about interviews because they understand the element of ritual combat involved and are fighting at a matching weight. If a Major or Howard often comes off badly, is it because the interviewer is using unfair punches or that the politician lacks basic skills in the ring? (Looking at the opposition, Prescott is clearly a bruiser, while, rather worryingly, Blair is being encouraged by his press secretary, Alastair Campbell, to become a whinger.)

The director-general is worried about "courtesy" to ministers. He complained in his speech specifically about "the disorienting open question - the rabbit punch - designed to knock off balance". This must be read as a reference to a familar Paxman tactic: the languid kick-off with, "Getting a bit embarrassing, isn't it?", or: "Has Britain ever been worse governed?"

Yet questioning techniques have become less straightforward largely because of the increased sophistication of answering (or non-answering) skills. Perhaps it is too extreme to say that politicians take to the airwaves mainly in order to lie, but certainly they are there to avoid revealing the whole truth. Trained in the media gymnasiums of Sir Tim Bell or Peter Mandelson, politicians arrive with a series of set speeches to deliver.

Mr Birt suggests that politicians deserve special respect because they are elected, while presenters are not. Although BBC journalists should always be aware that their salaries are paid by the public, the director-general's distinction about accountability is simplistic. In general, a politician will only suffer a hostile interview when involved in some kind of policy or personal scandal. It is highly unlikely that he or she has ever gone before the electorate on this particular issue, be it a love child, an embarrassing leaked memo, or the collapse of sterling. Although voted in as an MP, Michael Howard has never been elected as Home Secretary, nor has the general public ever had a chance to vote on his prison policy.

This is a legitimate debate - and there is another side to the defences of aggressive journalism I have raised - but what is odd is that John Birt should be making the prosecution case. His speech complains about "artificial stories", constructed by journalists from tiny nuances in political interviews. Although he does not say it, this phenomenon is most observable in Monday newspapers reporting Sunday TV and radio programmes. Yet who was it that introduced both a Sunday morning and a Sunday lunchtime political talk-show to BBC Television? John Birt. The manufacture of stories is largely a result of the increase in current affairs space to be filled, and that very expansion in factual programming has been one of Birt's main projects at the BBC.

Traditionally, the crises of BBC director-generals have involved moral or political objections to programmes from external sources. Birt's reign has been unique in that all of his rows - "Armanigate", "Producer Choice" and the latest one - have involved his own relationship with the corporation or its staff. He probably sees himself as the victim, in the reporting of his weekend comments, of the cycle of distortion he described. But there was a real story here in the continuing oddity of the BBC's boss being also its severest critic.