In Defence of John Humphrys

Melanie Phillips is wound-up (there’s a shock) by the Today interview with Jack Straw this morning.

Presenter John Humphrys posed the question that the attacks in Istanbul might be viewed as a response to the Iraq war and Straw responded vigorously arguing that this view was nonsense as the terrorists have been at work long before the war and indeed long before September 11.

I broadly agree with Straw’s position and he firmly rejected Humphrys’ suggestion – the Today presenter rather backed down on the issue.

Phillips concludes her post with this: And what, for the umpteenth time, is the BBC doing continuing to permit such outrageous bias to drive its premier radio current affairs show? When is it going to start putting its journalistic house in order?

This sort of stuff has to be challenged. At the risk of drifting into Phillips-speak, her attitude is a challenge to free speech and can send us on the road to a truly state-controlled media.

Humphrys question contained assumptions that were wrong in my opinion. I don’t agree with him and I agree with Straw on this issue. But Humphrys was asking a question that a lot of people wanted answering.

The idea that the Istanbul attacks were some kind of response to the war in Iraq is, I suspect, held by quite a number of people. For a start there were over a 100,000 people on the streets of London last night who were arguing such a viewpoint.

Many, not as strident and certain as the Stoppers, would probably have given the idea some thought. I know a few people whose early emotional reaction yesterday was along the lines of ‘Jesus Christ what have we stirred up?’

Whether the BBC’s Humphrys actually shares that view or not is in many ways irrelevant. He was asking the Foreign Secretary to respond to a viewpoint that is held by at least a significant minority of people.

Straw took full advantage of the opportunity to make the case against such an attitude. He did so in an articulate, calm but forthright manner which I am sure will have won over those who had not made up their minds on the matter. I hope so.

That is good democratic debate and that is also good public service broadcasting. It is more likely to win hearts and minds than one hundred hysterical columns by Melanie Phillips.

The issue of BBC bias is a complex one which has more to do with the nature of media elites than any great conspiracy. But the road which Phillips wants us to go down, censoring or sacking radio presenters who ask questions she doesn’t like, or the government don’t agree with, is a danger.

If you want to hear questions such as “Foreign Secretary, surely the events in Istanbul mean we must redouble our efforts to defeat terrorism?” or “Is this not a reminder of the terrible threat we face?” then there are any number of countries you can travel to and get a taste of such journalism.

Hopefully the number of such countries with that kind of media will reduce in the coming years. We certainly don’t want to add Britain to the list.