Legacy to give thanks for: Andrew Marr and Mark Lawson pay homage to Brian Redhead, the embodiment of political independence and journalistic cheekiness, and champion of the listening classes

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THE retirement of the editor of the Sun and the death of the main presenter of Radio 4's Today programme within 48 hours is one of those nudging coincidences that fate occasionally throws up. For Kelvin MacKenzie and Brian Redhead had each become, by the end of their careers, the dean of a significant tradition in British journalism. These traditions were quite opposed. It is unsurprising that it should have been the Sun which yesterday gave Redhead the least obituary coverage of any newspaper.

Brian Redhead embodied the principle of the BBC's political independence from, and journalistic cheekiness towards, the government. And, in his case particularly - for either historical or personal reasons - towards Conservative governments. Kelvin MacKenzie embodied the principle of the slavish support of the majority of the British press for the government. And particularly, for reasons historical, proprietorial or personal, the government of Margaret Thatcher.

In this way, MacKenzie and Redhead became, during the Eighties, symbols of the relationship between politicians and the print and broadcast media respectively. It is not a fanciful neatness to describe them as the two most influential media voices in Britain: MacKenzie was town crier to the working classes, Redhead to the middle classes. Each confirmed a million prejudices, echoed a million unvoiced thoughts, each breakfast time.

And so, without equating the leaving of a life with the leaving of a job, the end of these careers provides an opportunity to examine the endurance of the media schools they led.

It is especially opportune to do this, for, in each case, the final note of the career bizarrely contradicted what had gone before. MacKenzie, quite unexpectedly, left office no longer on speaking terms with a Conservative prime minister. Redhead was the recipient of a breathless eulogy from Lady Thatcher, whose remarks perhaps say more for the tradition of de mortuis nil nisi bonum than for her own consistency.

For, in remembering Redhead, no one should forget the totemic status attained by the presenter and his programme during the Thatcher years as examples of the irresponsible leftiness of the BBC, and the need for its reform. It is no secret that the Hussey- Checkland-Birt administrations which ran the BBC from the mid- Eighties were nervous of the Tory government and doubtful about the style of Redhead and Today. Luckily - as with Jeremy Paxman, another of the new management's least favourite sons - Redhead was sufficiently personally cussed and publicly celebrated to be able to ignore attempts to impose a new tone on BBC current affairs. It is as a leader of the resistance to journalistic submission under the cover of 'politeness' and 'fairness' that Redhead should be celebrated.

The sniffier obituaries have talked of ego, but all journalists are egotistical and all you can hope for is that their personal ambitions sometimes have generally beneficial effects. What some may have seen as Redhead's desire to seem smarter and sharper than ministers at least provided a better service to the electorate. If the tributes after his death were unexpectedly fulsome from some quarters, this was partly because of the inherent insincerity of politicians, but also because events of the past few years have vindicated Redhead's position. The principle that ministerial mouthpieces should be given a hard time has never enjoyed such widespread support.

And for what will Kelvin MacKenzie be remembered? In considering the Sun, non-readers often make the mistake of failing to separate content from technique. You wouldn't use MacKenzie's paper to teach a class in journalistic ethics, but you would use it to teach journalistic skills. For ingenuity of language and narrative drive, the Sun frequently leaves the broadsheets looking like the hamster after Freddie Starr has eaten it.

But when content is considered, MacKenzie's legacy is a sorry one. He encouraged and legitimised, in newspaper coverage of election campaigns, distortion, ignorance and occasionally invention in promoting the party favoured by the proprietor. The brutal and bravura attitude of the Sun in recent weeks towards John Major surely represents only a temporary independence. It must be assumed that, with a new Sun editor and probably a new Tory leader in place by the next election, the paper will be back on shrill and strict parade.

MacKenzie also helped to encourage a market for sleazy stories and photographs, introducing to British newspapers some of the standards of US supermarket magazines. His defence would be that a public appetite for such scandal clearly exists, and that the BBC and broadsheet papers frequently report vicariously the same sleaze, quoting the tabloids. All of this is true, but MacKenzie - and his proprietor, Rupert Murdoch - has been responsible for lowering the standards of his readers and of journalism.

Alarmingly, MacKenzie now takes this ability to fresh territory. He has been transferred to run Murdoch's satellite arm, BSkyB. Here his announced mission is at least to double the viewing figures for these minority channels. It is unlikely, given his own history and that of television, that this task will be accomplished by moving the programming up-market. Any success he achieves will inevitably undermine the standards and financing of the terrestrial channels. And so, with his career switch, a symbolic opponent of the BBC becomes an actual one.

Brian Redhead and Kelvin MacKenzie were both emblematic professionals, but Redhead's was the more precious emblem. It is undoubtedly a refreshing development that the Sun should have for the moment recanted on its uncritical passion for Conservative government, but the BBC's right to direct unsettling questions at politicans has been a less fickle and more important tradition.

There have been many times in the past 15 years when that tradition seemed under threat, not at all because of the corporation's broadcasters, but because of the hollers of politicians and the receptive trembling of BBC management. Lacking an internal spine, the BBC was given an external one by broadcasters such as Redhead. That the corporation's appetite for a journalistic fight has survived him was part of his achievement, and will be part of his legacy. But the former editor of the Sun - as he sits at his new desk plotting to take BSkyB down-market - would doubtless dismiss this as the typical bollocks of the Today-listening classes.