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Sunday, September 04, 2005

Stitching up the critics

I remember that during the Thatcher Governments that every now and again politicians such as Norman Tebbitt would launch a sustained attack on the BBC for its left wing and anti-government bias. The impact of these bursts of activity would be to mute the broadcaster and give government politicians a much easier ride on programmes such as Radio Four's Today.

Clearly the lessons of that tactic were not lost on New Labour, who very quickly adopted the same methods. The Government's response to the Andrew Gilligan affair was a classic example of ignoring the facts in favour of attacking the reporter, his methods and his employer. They succeeded in sowing enough doubt in the minds of the public to enable them to effectively ride out the storm. Peter Mandelson summed up the Government's response in this morning's Observer:

'I went on Today during the controversy over [Andrew] Gilligan, the radio journalist behind the report. But I didn't take on Gilligan - I took on what Humphrys had said in his introduction to the report,' Mandelson said.

As John Humphrys allegedly said recently, whatever you thought about Andrew Gilligan, his essential premise that the government had sexed up the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction was correct. They did not exist at the time that they were being used as a justification for going to war.

John Humphrys has been taking more flak for telling it like it is. According to one paper in an after-dinner speech to the Communication Directors' Forum on 8 June he made disparaging remarks about Tony Blair, John Prescott, Peter Mandelson, Gordon Brown and Alastair Campbell, Downing Street's former communications chief. He also allegedly endorsed Andrew Gilligan's Today report.

Predictably, the attacks have focussed not on what Humphrys said but on whether it was appropriate that he made the remarks at all. Critics have focussed on his employers and are putting pressure on them to silence him. It is through these methods that free speech is curtailed. The Government can easily dismiss similar views from another politician, who may not attract the same coverage, but they cannot so easily ignore an intelligent and independent commentator who the public respect.

It is most probably also the case that if the BBC had not been asked to investigate this matter then the remarks would never have got even a fraction of this publicity. This is another warning shot across the broadcasters bows, keep your people on the side of government or else! Our democracy is greatly devalued by the suppression of debate in this way.
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