BBC row: Elite's favourite show takes the flak from politicians

Louise Jury
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:53

Tensions between politicians and the BBC have always existed and Today has borne the brunt of the flak. Louise Jury looks at the love-hate relationship between the corporation's flagship news programme and governments.

Lord Tebbit once showed his irritation with the Today programme by arriving for an interview, pulling a duster from his pocket and waved it in front of the editor's face - just to dust off the bias, he joked.

And it was during the Thatcherite years of the Eighties that antagonism against the programme was at its height. Lord Tebbit, when Tory chairman, even set up a "bias monitoring" unit at Central Office to keep tabs on the BBC which he described as the "insufferable, smug, sanctimonious, naive, guilt-ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy of that sunset home of that third- rate decade, the 1960s".

John Humphrys may be Labour's hate figure now, but it was the late Brian Redhead who angered the Tories most in those days. In one of the most memorable exchanges on radio, the then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, lost his temper under questioning over the economy and accused the broadcaster of being a life-long Labour supporter. Mr Redhead asked for a minute's silence "while you compose an apology for daring to suggest you know how I exercise my vote; and I shall reflect upon the death of your monetarist policy".

More recently, John Birt, the BBC's director-general, apologised to Brian Mawhinney, then Tory party chairman, after he complained that Kenneth Clarke, then Chancellor, was treated in an "openly hostile" way by Anna Ford last year.

Mr Humphrys, though, is the presenter who most frequently rattles guests today. Jonathan Aitken, the former MP, accused him of being an openly "partisan pugilist" and condemned the BBC as being the "Blair Broadcasting Corporation". For more than a decade, he has irritated and goaded politicians. Yet despite tense relations, it is a rash politician who feels able to relinquish air time to the political enemy. Any "ban" would be unlikely to last long.

Although the Labour Party recently suggested that the Prime Minister was less dedicated to Today than most politicians, the programme remains an acknowledged agenda-setter.

Yesterday, the BBC was keen to point out that despite Labour's threat to withdraw co-operation, Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, was interviewed on Thursday morning and Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday. However, BBC2's Newsnight has had to fight to get ministers to appear since the election. During the Bernie Ecclestone/smoking row, no minister would appear. When this happened for a fourth night, the programme showed an empty chair in the studio.

A source at the programme said: "The Tories used to almost always put a minister up. There is no doubt that Labour try to kill the stories. They do interviews up until lunchtime and then say, `No more,' in the hope that we'll drop the story. But we're normally pretty determined that we can't be stopped."

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