Leading article: The BBC's inappropriate verdict on an awkward spat

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The Independent Online

This is doubtless the sense in which the BBC director general, Mark Thompson, used the word in his statement yesterday. Presenting the findings of an internal inquiry into remarks made by the star presenter of the Today programme, John Humphrys, at a private forum in June, he said they had been "inappropriate and misguided". He added that, although he was "satisfied that Mr Humphrys had not shown any party political bias or lack of impartiality...", his remarks "ran the risk of calling into question John's own impartiality and, by extension, that of the BBC".

So there we have it. After instructing his deputy to pore over the transcript of remarks made by one of its leading presenters in private, Mr Thompson had found nothing that damaged the BBC's reputation, but he was condemning the remarks anyway. The apparent calculation was that this was the least that would be required to end a potentially awkward spat with the Government. It was a concession too far.

Mr Humphrys keeps his job - for now. There will, Mr Thompson said, be no further action. The fact is, though, that those at the helm of the BBC have once again shown lamentable spinelessness in the face of government pressure - or, in this case, the merest hint of pressure. For the fourth time in recent memory, the BBC has been challenged about its impartiality and, rather than defend itself, it has rolled over with scarcely a murmur.

First there was the pillorying and eventual departure of the BBC correspondent Andrew Gilligan over the Government's "sexing up" of its Iraq weapons dossier - a charge subsequently borne out in spades. Then there was the ousting of the BBC chairman and director general after the Hutton inquiry. Now there is Mr Humphrys, rapped over the knuckles over private remarks that were leaked to The Times - as is now admitted - by none other than a former Downing Street aide.

There is no mystery about whose interests are served here: those of the unholy alliance between Downing Street and the Murdoch media. Indeed, Tim Allan, the self-confessed leaker - once his cover was blown - says that he was "glad" to have been able to bring Mr Humphrys' comments to the corporation's attention.

Nor can there be any doubt that right is on Mr Humphrys' side. His comments on the mores of today's politicians were pertinent and applied across the political parties. But this dispute, like others that have dogged the BBC in the past, throws up an ambiguity for which the corporation bears some responsibility. Mr Humphrys is one of a number of presenters who have become celebrities in their own right. The balance between a presenter's obligations to the BBC and his freedom to express his personal views is something the BBC seems, even after the Hutton inquiry, not to have sorted out to its own, or its employees', satisfaction.

Mark Thompson tried yesterday to clarify the position. BBC presenters, he said, should be free to discuss topical issues in journalism in public, but "in such a way that it does not risk undermining our audience's confidence in their, and our, objectivity, impartiality and courtesy". It would appear, from everything else he said, that the BBC found Mr Humphrys not guilty on every count. So what is the fuss about? And why, in that case, were his private remarks judged "inappropriate"?