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Saturday, December 13, 1997 Published at 09:28 GMT


Labour threatens Today with silence
image: [ John Humphrys:
John Humphrys: "With the greatest respect, you're answering the wrong question"

The Labour Party has threatened to withdraw cooperation with BBC Radio's Today programme over an interview with the Social Security Secretary, Harriet Harman.

Labour's communications boss, David Hill, wrote to the Radio 4 breakfast show complaining that the interruptions by the presenter John Humphrys meant Ms Harman was denied the chance to develop her answers.

Labour is "now seriously considering whether, as a party, we will suspend cooperation" with Today, Mr Hill said.

He added: "Individual Government departments will continue to make their own minds up but we will now give very careful thought to any bid to us [to take part in the programme] in order to make absolutely sure that your listeners are not going to be subjected to a repeat of the ridiculous exchange."

[ image: Harman: Asked to explain earlier statements opposing benefit cuts]
Harman: Asked to explain earlier statements opposing benefit cuts
During the interview, which lasted more than eight minutes, Mr Humphrys interrupted Ms Harman many times.

He challenged her with changing her mind on the cuts to single parent benefit since taking office and implied she was attempting to deny the impact of the policy.

"If you cut something, you make somebody worse off. It's a fact," he said.

At other points, he interjected: "This is Alice in Wonderland stuff, isn't it?" and "With the greatest respect, you're answering the wrong question."

In his letter, Mr Hill said the "John Humphrys problem" had "assumed new proportions."

He said: "We need to talk as this is now serious."

The Today programme's editor, Jon Barton, wrote to Mr Hill rejecting the charges.

"I thought it [the interview] was one of the best attempts yet to establish why Labour has decided to cut benefits to lone parents," he said.

Mr Barton said Ms Harman had been given the opportunity to explain her actions.

If Labour went through with their threats he would be "very sorry," he said, adding: "The losers would be the listeners."

The Liberal Democrat MP, Norman Baker, said he thought the Government had a duty to defend its policies before the voters.

He said: "It is the British public who have the right to hear Government ministers being asked fair and reasonable question about their policies.

"The Labour Party should now give a clear assurance that it will stop trying to intimidate the BBC."

It is not the first time Mr Humphrys interviewing technique has attracted criticism.

During the previous Conservative Government, one MP counted the number of times he had interrupted during an interview with the former Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke.

Mr Clarke had the chance to get his own back after the election when he got to ask Mr Humphrys the question for a 40th anniversary show.

Click here to hear the interview with Ms Harman

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