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Last Updated: Monday, 10 October 2005, 13:50 GMT 14:50 UK
Not "broken, beaten or cowed"
By Kevin Marsh
Editor, Today programme

"The BBC and its journalists are losing their nerve", is the conclusion of the cover story in this week's New Statesman magazine by editor John Kampfner. Today programme editor Kevin Marsh responds to the attack.

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New Statesman

I was with the Today team in Blackpool when this week's New Statesman came out - ironically, appearing at a fringe meeting talking about spin and lies.

John Kampfner's piece caused a bit of a stir, as these things do in the overheated bubble of a party conference - which, presumably, was the intention.

One of the BBC's friendly critics said to me: "It can't possibly be true; only 14 BBC executives phoning each other in a plot to sack Humphrys? It must have been at least three times that."

John Kampfner's imagined ace is his unsubstantiated assertion that the BBC chairman is, in effect, plotting to get rid of John Humphrys - all to please the government and secure the charter.

His story is an example of what he calls "risk taking"; publishing a story he doesn't know to be true ... hoping that it might be.

He is wrong.

There is no desire that I can detect anywhere in the BBC to offer John Humphrys up to the government as a "nice fat plum" or a "high profile casualty" in a clear-out of difficult journalists.

"Muzzled"

You only have to pause for two seconds' thought to realise the consequences for any chairman - or director-general for that matter - of the public outcry that would follow the dismissal of any BBC presenter on those grounds.

I've had many conversations about Today with the Marks Thompson and Byford (DG and deputy DG). We have never talked about deferring to ministers, winning their favour or offending them.

In any event, as anyone who's ever worked in the BBC knows, an instruction from the top to go soft on the government would be the best way of ensuring the opposite.

Kevin Marsh
BBC journalism ... can never be about throwing loose, half-baked allegations around in the hope that something will stick
Kevin Marsh
Editor, Today

But John Kampfner levels a more serious charge against BBC journalism and therefore against me; that since Lord Hutton's report, I have become excessively risk averse. I have been muzzled and am "deliberately avoiding giving offence to the government and the establishment."

It's just not true.

Though it's not the first time he's levelled this charge; he and I debated it publicly in January 2003 - a week before Lord Hutton reported. Odd, then, that he now claims we lost our backbone "on the day Lord Hutton delivered his verdict."

John argued then as he argues now - and with even weaker evidence. I seem to remember that back in 2003, his best shot was that we had failed to take the risk of inviting him onto Today to plug his - admittedly rather good - book on the Iraq war.

The language of "risk" and "backbone" that he used then and uses now is offensive.

There are real risks in journalism; hundreds have died practising the trade - my friend and colleague Frank Gardner sits in a wheelchair now as a result of real risks.

"Risk" can only mean one thing in the context John uses it; publishing a story that you surmise to be true and know will cause a stir.

About trust

What kind of journalism is that?

The kind of journalism that sees causing trouble or getting up people's noses as ends in themselves.

This might be good enough for The New Statesman - it can never be good enough for the BBC and as a BBC editor, I won't be judged by that standard or accept those terms of debate.

BBC journalism is about trust; trusted reporting, trusted interviewing, trusted analysis. It can never be about throwing loose, half-baked allegations around in the hope that something will stick.

Today interviews are robust, difficult and challenging because they're based on checked facts - not because they take risks with the facts.

John Humphrys and Sarah Montague on BBC Radio 4's Today programme
Today presenter John Humphrys caused controversy over a speech critical of politicians
The same is true of Today's original reporting. I would be betraying the trust that licence-fee payers invest in me and my BBC colleagues if I didn't kill stories that didn't stack up; if I didn't check the evidence again and again; if I didn't go through scripts with a fine tooth comb to be sure we could substantiate all that we say, that there wasn't another explanation for what we'd surmised.

Is that "risk averse"?

Frankly, I don't care. It's what I've always believed journalism to be - at PM, World at One and now at Today.

And if there is a debate to be had here, then it's not about why the BBC checks its facts - before and after Hutton - and tries to publish only what it knows to be true; it's about why "risk-taking" journalists don't.


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