LEADING ARTICLE:Hot kitchen at breakfast time

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Jonathan Aitken is behaving wimpishly. His accusation of bias against John Humphrys, host of the BBC's Today programme, suggests that Mr Aitken is simply not up to the cut and thrust of politics. Politicians should be equipped to defend themselves. An interviewer who tends to interrupt poses no problem to a seasoned performer. So if the Chief Secretary to the Treasury finds that he cannot stand the heat on early morning radio perhaps he should stand down from his post and enjoy breakfast time in a more convivial environment - the Ritz, say?

The fact that several of Mr Aitken's colleagues yesterday whined in harmony demeans them and their party more than it damages the BBC. It has now become something of a ritual for Conservatives to accuse the BBC of anti- government bias when they are behind in the opinion polls. Constituency activists may applaud it, but the rest of the voting populace recognises it as confirmation that the party is flailing about in search of somewhere to attach blame for its dismal level of support. For all the talk of stalking horses and leadership contests, John Major cannot principally be held responsible for Tory unpopularity; if yesterday's opinion poll in the Sunday Times is to be believed, confidence in the Government would barely improve if he was replaced. So, in the absence of a clear cause for the party's failings, the Tories have apparently chosen to scapegoat the BBC.

For its part, the BBC may not be unduly worried about this spasm from Downing Street. It does not, in itself, indicate that the present period of political consensus about the BBC's future is about to end.

However, those at the top of the BBC should reconsider what they allow their journalists to do outside their BBC hours. Mr Humphrys may, as he protested, have been acting as a strictly impartial chairman at the education conference that Mr Aitken cited as part of his complaint. Mr Humphrys says he expected all the political parties to participate, and was surprised that there was no Conservative representative, an absence that gave the event an anti-government tone. But there are other examples of senior BBC presenters making large sums of money from appearances that may not always reflect well on their day job.

Outside activities are regulated by BBC guidelines applying both to freelances (such as the highly paid "anchors") and staff members. Yet the BBC's "stars", much in demand to present events and videos for the commercial world, seem to be given freer rein than their less sought-after colleagues. If listeners and viewers realised how much those journalists trade on their august BBC image, considerable public concern might be generated.

Political attacks on broadcasters only really become dangerous when the journalists leave themselves open to attack by behaving in a less than proper way. That cannot, in the end, be said of Mr Humphrys - but John Birt, director-general of the BBC, would be wise to make sure that his key people are whiter than white. A close-fought general election is just around the corner, and, as Mr Aitken has demonstrated, desperate politicians will not hold back from blaming the messenger.