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Last Updated: Monday, 9 February, 2004, 14:57 GMT
Humphrys slams Campbell's speech
Alastair Campbell
Alastair Campbell was quick to respond to the Hutton report
John Humphrys says watching ex-No 10 press chief Alastair Campbell's post-Hutton speech felt "like lying in the gutter while your head's kicked in".

The Radio 4 Today host said Mr Campbell had wanted to "destabilise the BBC in a pretty tacky way".

In the interview for this week's Radio Times he said he liked Mr Campbell.

But he did not believe the BBC's chairman and director general should have quit in the wake of criticism in Lord Hutton's report.

Hellish day

The Radio Times issue carrying the interview goes on sale on Tuesday.

Humphrys said he had no idea of the furore his now infamous "two-way" conversation with Andrew Gilligan, the BBC's defence correspondent who stepped down in the wake of Hutton, would unleash.

He suggests, preposterously, that I sneer at ministers - he knows a great deal about that because he's done it for a long time - and he damned near accused me of lying
John Humphrys on Alastair Campbell

"I was just coming awake," said Humphrys, referring to the 6.07 broadcast on 29 May last year.

"Stories at that time are usually less important than ones we save later for our main audience."

He said the day Lord Hutton's report into circumstances surrounding the death of government scientist Dr David Kelly was published "was hellish".

He likened ex-Downing Street media chief Alastair Campbell's post-Hutton response as a "presidential appearance at the foot of a grand staircase" in the Foreign Press Association.

'Triumphalist behaviour'

"It felt like lying in the gutter while your head's kicked in," said Humphrys.

"I'm not getting into a pissing match with him. I've known him a long time. I like him and he's loyal, amusing and clever, but he's tried to destabilise the BBC in a pretty tacky way.

John Humphrys
Humphrys: The BBC should continue breaking news stories
"Maybe he thought we were an easy target because we're dependent on the government of the day.

"He suggests, preposterously, that I sneer at ministers - he knows a great deal about that because he's done it for a long time - and he damned near accused me of lying.

"I'm more than happy to have my record weighed in the balance with his.

"The public can make their own judgements. His triumphalist behaviour has probably helped the BBC."

Robust

Humphrys said he was "hugely surprised" by Lord Hutton's findings, "like anyone who read the totality of the evidence".

It's wrong to suggest we'll change because a judge said we made a mistake
John Humphrys

"I'm not prepared to attack him or advance a view about why it happened. I'm not a law lord. But I don't think the chairman [Gavyn Davies] and director general [Greg Dyke] should have resigned.

"They'd already apologised and set in train a series of changes."

Humphrys said there has been "damage" to the Today programme's "confidence", but its editor Kevin Marsh "has been robust - and that's what matters".

"The biggest risk is ourselves. We have to hold our nerve. If someone takes a swipe, you flinch, but you don't cover your head and say: 'Please don't do it again'. Nor do you punch them back in the nose if you're a civilised bloke."

Hard working

Humphrys says the outcome of Hutton "won't make us any more careful because that implies we haven't been careful in the past".

"No newspaper or magazine would survive the scrutiny the BBC gets ... I'm not saying we won't become more boring, but it's wrong to suggest we'll change because a judge said we made a mistake.

"We knew we had. It would be bizarre if we didn't occasionally ... I used an infelicitous phrase at 7.30 that morning which I wish I hadn't, when I said the dossier was 'cobbled together'."

He is particularly angry on behalf of the mostly young Today staff.

"They work bloody hard and Hutton implied they've done a shoddy job. You should see the doubt in their faces: 'Are we really this bad?'

"And of course the answer is 'no'. I'm in an enviable position, financially sound and can go no further in my career, but it doesn't stop me being insecure in a professional sense.

"I finish most interviews worrying: 'That was crap'. I've thought hundreds of times about giving up, but the BBC knows how to flatter you and I'm a sucker for that. Most journalists are deeply insecure. I am, for thousands of reasons."

Breaking news

Humphrys, who has spent 17 years at Today, says both Conservative and Labour parties have had their moments of loathing the BBC, particularly when in power.

But he insists the corporation should continue to originate and break news stories.

"One thing Today exists for is to put ministers under fair pressure so they tell you something they didn't mean to.

"We don't have a 30-second delay while an editor listens to every word and orders: 'Stop!' That would be preposterous and the end of the programme."

As part of an internal BBC shake-up, Humphrys has had to give up his Sunday Times opinion column, a fate suffered by other BBC journalists with outside writing interests.

"I'm unhappy about it, but understand the reasons. I'm not weeping or gnashing my teeth."

Hooked on news

The 60-year-old broadcaster, who rarely watches television, claims he has been mellowed by the birth of this son Owen three years ago to his partner Valerie Sanderson, a news presenter he met at Today.

He has signed a further three year contract and is writing a book on the English language.

He says "you have to be a bit mad" to regularly rise before dawn for the show.

"You get hooked. All this stuff about heroin, cocaine and cannabis - well, this kind of work is the real drug. I keep going. Pathetic, isn't it?"




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