Freedom of BBC Journalists : WMD : Turkey and EU

Britain still has a global reputation – based largely on the BBC – as the home of free speech

The only sign of life from Labour has been from the maverick former Europe minister, Denis MacShane, who was himself whacked by Blair for being too free in speaking his mind.

Humphrys spoke the truth: that’s why Labour got itself in a spin

You know I sometimes wonder what kind of country we really are. We think of ourselves as a happy jabbering bazaar of free speech. Yet when a notoriously cantankerous broadcaster utters the round unvarnished truth, he receives a rebuke from the top of the BBC that is so sinister, and so plainly the result of internal wrangling, that it can have been inspired only by the Labour Government itself.

What was so “misguided and inappropriate” in the remarks of John Humphrys? There is nothing controversial in saying that Gordon Brown is on the dull side in debate. The Chancellor prides himself on his dullness. If anything, Humphrys was too mild. Most of us who have endured Gord’s Budget speeches would happily pay Humphrys’s exorbitant after-dinner rate not to hear another word from the man, and as for the suggestion that John Prescott is difficult to understand, it is as blindingly uncontroversial as saying that Tony Blair has a simpering grin.

What enraged the Labour Party was nothing to do with Brown or Prescott. The reason they are persecuting Humphrys is that they still cannot face the reality that the BBC was right about Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair, and the sexed-up dossier about Saddam’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction.

Every day the Government receives fresh confirmation that the war in Iraq was catastrophically ill-thought-out, and has involved the deaths of tens of thousands of people we were supposed to be liberating. They must live with that. What they cannot abide is the suggestion that it was fought on a lie. They know in their hearts that the casus belli was at least in part based on a witting untruth, in that Downing Street embellished claims about Saddam’s weapons, to persuade Labour MPs to support the war, when those claims were a tissue of falsehood, and when they knew that they were stretching the evidence.

Labour ministers hate that fact. They hate it as they hate hell, because they know it illuminates the sick mendacity at the heart of New Labour. They will stop at nothing to prevent the repetition of that truth, and that is why they drove Andrew Gilligan and Greg Dyke out of the BBC, with an unspoken threat to remove the licence fee.

That is why a former Downing Street spin-doctor is now trying, with the assistance of various toadying journalists, to bully Humphrys: because he dared to speak the truth about Campbell, lies and the WMD, and I would be astonished if this was not being done with Labour collusion.

It infuriates me that Humphrys has been “rebuked”, in this pompous way, because there are countries all over the world where the sound of Lillibullero still means liberty, and people who still believe in the absolute ability of the BBC to give the world the truth.

Let me give one example. I badly want Turkey to be a member of the European Union. I believe that we in western Europe have a historic choice in the next few years, and that we can be visionary, or we can funk it. We can either turn our backs on the Turks, and declare openly or in code that a Muslim country, no matter how secular, may not be admitted to Europe. Or else we can show courage and leadership and begin the great task of the modern age, effecting a reconciliation between moderate Islam and the West, by bringing one of the largest and most powerful Muslim nations into the EU.

To understand how beneficial this might be for Turkey and Europe, think back to Spain under Franco, or Greece under the colonels. Who can doubt that EU membership was good for those countries and their concepts of democracy and human rights?

So it would be for Turkey. That is why we partisans of Turkish accession have been so disgusted by the decision of the Turkish government to prosecute the country’s greatest living novelist, Orhan Pamuk. His crime? He referred in an interview to the killings in Turkey of Kurds and Armenians, both of which have undoubtedly happened in the last century.

Mr Pamuk’s figures may be wrong; he may be out by a factor of 10 or 100. But he has a right to say what he believes to be the historical truth. The government of Prime Minister Erdogan has decided that Mr Pamuk – author of such wonderful novels as My Name is Red – must be tried for “insulting the national character”, so exposing him to the possibility of three years in prison.

This is a country that wishes to be part of the EU! What is going on? Have we heard the slightest protest from Jack Straw? Is there any kind of initiative from the Foreign Office? Has anybody bothered to ask Mr Blair what he thinks of this blatant repression of freedom of expression?

The only sign of life from Labour has been from the maverick former Europe minister, Denis MacShane, who was himself whacked by Blair for being too free in speaking his mind.

MacShane is going to the trial of Orhan Pamuk in Turkey, and anyone who cares about freedom, democracy, and the future of Europe should be encouraged to do the same.

But what kind of authority does poor Denis carry in this matter? He will arrive in Turkey as the representative of a governing party that not only bullies the BBC for speaking the truth about the conditions under which Britain went to war. Denis and his Labour colleagues have just voted for the religious hatred Bill – possibly the most serious erosion of free speech introduced by any government since 1945.

Britain still has a global reputation – based largely on the BBC – as the home of free speech. Across the world, and especially the Islamic world, it is more vital than ever that an increasingly cynical audience should believe in the freedom of BBC journalists. That, above all, is why the bullying of Humphrys is so creepy and so wrong.

30 thoughts on “Freedom of BBC Journalists : WMD : Turkey and EU”

  1. Hurrah for Boris the maverick.

    I don’t know enough about the issues in today’s article to provide any informed comment, but here’s hoping you manage to really upset someone.

  2. Boris, wasn’t aware of the Turkey prosecution; comes to something when the first I read of civil rights violations is on the blog of a Tory, but it no longer surprises me to learn that I agree with you completely.

    Well said.

  3. Some bloggers display little black and white icons with the words “I believe in the BBC’. I won’t be showing one of these while Mark Thompson and people like him remain in charge of the corporation.

    Given the after-dinner venue, there wasn’t anything inappropriate, or particularly original, about John Humphrys’ remarks. Making criticisms of Labour politicians hardly implies a bias towards other parties. The Today programme interviewers have a good record for impartiality.

    Evidently the Alastair Campbell radar system picked up Humphrys statement, re Gilligan and the Iraq dossier, that: “The fact is that we got it right.” Hence Mark Thompson’s Singapore-style public dressing down: “We’ve made it clear to him that this must not happen again.”

    I’d walk out if I were Humphrys.

    Humphrys and his colleagues have a tough job. A lot of politicians come into the studios determined to deliver a series of pre-rehearsed arguments and ignore the questions they are asked. Some of them do this blatantly. The journalists have a responsibility, on behalf of the public, to prevent this, and it’s the job of the BBC management to protect the journalists from political harassment.

    I’m delighted that Boris has taken up this issue. Bravo!

  4. John Humphrys?s peculiar brand of folksy nihilism is designed to spread cynicism about politics. The BBC now has to decide whether it is acceptable for their main radio presenter to use his licence fee-created celebrity to earn thousands of pounds telling audiences that all Ministers are liars, and detailing his contempt for senior Cabinet ministers

  5. John Humphrys

    With the John Humphrys saga at the moment, I had begun to wonder exactly what he said. Via the Times Online one can watch a clip of the controversial bit of the speech, and as is the way with these…

  6. Nicholas – we had a good exchange when you supported the Labour candidate for Henley over the May 05 elections. It is good to hear from you now and we agreed to co-operate. You may yet be a Conservative voter one day!

  7. Melissa: Thank you. Have you seen the clip of Humphrys speech at,,2-1765414,00.html and the transcript?

    It really was light-hearted and anecdotal (and very funny in passages), except perhaps when he was answering the final question about the Gilligan interview.

    This incident is a reminder that Iraq, and Blair’s role in dragging Britain into the war, are unfinished political business. Sooner or later Blair should be held responsible for his actions.

  8. It is right to stand up against government attempts to stifle criticism. Unlike the duty of the governement to hold people to account if they incite violence, no governemnt should ever be exempt from this. As it happens I support the Coalition intervention in Iraq for reasons other than the existence or not of WMD.

    However what is the duty of the BBC more generally, or indeed of Comrade Humphrey? When Greg Dyke left was lots of anguish from young media types and one quote was that GD has made working at the BBC ‘fun’. Call me an old fuddy duddy (orderly queue please chaps!) but the purpose of public service broadcasting is not to make the working lives of its emplotees fun filled. A reasonable person might hope they got satisfaction from their jobs and so on but they – the employees – are not the primary purpose of the organisation. When they send me for my lobotomy my first requirement is that the surgeon does her job – I will feel not feel upset if she enjoys it in addition.

    I have not done a scientific study but I believe that

    the BBC is biased against the Conservative party (I am still – just – a Labour voter)

    the BBC will often present news with suitable omissions to make it more ‘fun’ – for example their take on a report today was that it showed that the health gap between rich and poor had widened this was true but it did not say that both rich and poor had on average got healthier which is what the report showed. A later interviewee had to point this out.

    the BBC promotes sentimentalism over real analysis. Often there will some disaster, tragedy or problem identfied in which those seen as victims are asked how they feel. Usually, for very good reasons, they honestly say how bad they feel, and this is where it ends as some justification for the BBC’s original criticism of the government, Boris Johnson, or whoever.

    the BBC often presents ‘alternative’ – e.g. religious atheists, pagans, aromotherapists, water diviners and irrationalists generally – withoutcriticism or any real attempt to explore the issue

    the BBC employs Eddie Mayer and Fee Glover – forgive spelling both

    We do not want a public service broadcasting organisation such as those under communism, though the BBC probably has more than its fair share who would like to broadcast the same anti-Western pap. I suggest what we need is a BBC that is not afraid to take government to account but is prepared to present cases as to reasonable people rather than ‘hey we’ve got the latest dirt on..’. Omission or even lies to make the case look bad against the government, the Conservative party and others goes against this duty.

    How can this be rectified? Not by fiat. Consciousness of duty of this srt comes from tradition and the BBC, rather than evolve its tradition, has junked it in favour of fun. Quotas (no more than 50% of employees should be post-modernists) won’t work either.

    Boris is right. The sight of the government trying to gag the BBC is deeply unedifying and worrying. But JH is no champion of the people and the BBC, with some exceptions, fails in its duty.

  9. I’m with Nicholas Newman on this. Just because we might not like the accuser and the fact that Campbell is involved does not mean that there is not a case to answer.

    News and current affairs presenters for the BBC are in a special position because it is a public service funded by a state controlled licence levy. They have a moral responsibility to be impartial and to show that they are impartial. It seems to me that Humphrys – always happy to imply others have their snouts at the trough – is shovelling dosh into his private coffers by peddling his petulant opinions and that he is able to do so only because of his privileged position as a presenter on the BBC Radio’s premier news programme.

    He should keep his opinions to himself and not abuse his position.

    On Turkey, Boris is of course right. Turkey cannot expect their application to join the EU to be acceptable until they convert themselves fully into a democracy. Although not a supporter of our involvement in the EU, I agree that if we remain, we should be for Turkey’s entry but only once they have shown they are a democracy that respects free speech.

  10. Whilst I hold no brief for the caustic tongued brigade of self invented; self important, so-called guardians of the Westminster moral code, Paxman: Naughtie and of course , not least , Humphrys; I realise the difficulties they face in getting any recognizable cohesive answer to often very simple questions, put to ministers, who are primed only to spout the party line, but surely there must come a time when discretionary silence obviates an answer. Silence IS sometimes golden.

    However, if necessary, I would put my hand into a furnace in the defence of their freedom to speak the truth, in particular about the failings of our all too often, inadequate, leading politicians.

    As for the gospel according to Campbell: who is this unelected mouthpiece of the Cabinet; this windbag strangling ex hack, to dare to dictate what may or may not be said , in the semi privacy of a dinner party? Have we really descended to the Orwellian depths of Big Brother?

    The BBC has lost prestige by this lickspittle approach to New Labour, and should hang its collective heads in shame.

    As far as Turkey goes, in the seemingly unending search for more places to include in the EU. They have a long way to go, and no doubt that long way will lead them to the UK. Turkey is made up of a lot more than the westernised city of Istanbul, we must not forget that: can we afford Anatolia?

  11. The BBC had lost its way when trying to harmonize a number of cultures via its ethnic choice of broadcasters. Unfortunately they tipped the scales and, for a while, we may as well have been watching BBC Asia. Attempts appear to be in the works and there appears to be more ‘real’ Britishness in its approach, whatever ‘Britishness’ has come to mean.

    It’s the dumb so-called shows of competing cooks, gardeners and anyone with no obvious talent and with nothing better to do that has plagued viewing time. Today is the exception for BBC1 at least. Fridays seem to bring back the informative, humourous and entertaining side of BBC1 TV scheduling.

  12. Macarnie: “As for the gospel according to Campbell: who is this unelected mouthpiece of the Cabinet; this windbag strangling ex hack, to dare to dictate what may or may not be said , in the semi privacy of a dinner party? Have we really descended to the Orwellian depths of Big Brother?”

    Indeed. At the time of Alastair Campbell’s bizarre personal attack on the BBC, I thought the man had slipped his leash and was about to self-destruct. His behaviour belonged in Moscow, Minsk or Kuala Lumpur, not London.

    I was wrong. His aggression was a calculated attempt to neutralize the most important section of the media. Thanks to Hutton, he was successful and Number 10 successfully imposed their own definition of impartiality – not ours – on the BBC.

    I would prefer to see the BBC broken up into smaller units. It’s too big, too centralized and too influential, also too vulnerable to government interference. TV is a good medium for politicians, but a bad one for the public, presenting effects without explaining causes, reducing real problems to incomprehensible flashes of madness – promoting the ridiculous illusion that couch potatoes in Surbiton or Hartlepool can be at the vortex of world events.

  13. Nice to hear sense being talked. The Government bullies all press and it is about time people spoke out of it and stood up to it.

    On a different matter, The Conservatives need Ken Clarke.

  14. The problem for Turkey is Pamuk is not wrong. If anything he has gone on the low side of the numbers. Non-Armenian Holocaust and genocide historians term the actions against the Armenians as a definative genocide. The numbers are broadly accepted to be 1.2 to 1.5 million persons, heavily wieghted to women and children.

    You then have Cyprus. It would be an impossible precedent for the EU to accept one country that does not recognize the legitimate government of another EU member. It just isn’t going to happen.

  15. Boris, you are doing a good job of keeping my faith in politicians! Three cheers for John and Boris. Alas, they tell only the truth!

  16. Simon: I think we already covered the size and unwieldliness of the BBC at another place in these pages. That does not, however, negate your point; in fact, it is probably strengthened.

    We pay, and not too little, for what is a medium, so called because it is not well done. We; the Public; as the main shareholder should demand better performances, at all levels.

  17. The only thing Boris is that now Hurrumphrys says that he never made those comments (it was a labour spin that blew them up) and he wasn’t rebuked by Mark Thompson (they had a chat).

    Seems it was all a Labour-induced storm in a teacup. Do you fancy a rewrite?

  18. Well said Boris, as ever.

    Biig PS: on the subject of news and journalism, did you know that Stanley Johnson is going to be on the telly again?

    “Peter Dale, the head of More4, said he was “confident” that any legal challenge would fail. C4 is spending 33m launching More4 as part of a long-term strategy to guard against declining audiences on its main channel. Its schedule includes a nightly news programme at 8pm presented by Sarah Smith.

    “I think the news agenda in Britain is very narrow and we want More4 news to break that open,” Mr Dale said.

    Other programmes include a topical talk show, The Last Word, which will air at 11pm every weeknight and be hosted by a revolving cast including Stanley Johnson, the father of the Tory MP Boris.”

    Intrigued? check out the full story on:,,1557342,00.html

    Also, Stanley writes in the Guardian every thursday and his articles can be read online eg.:,,1564879,00.html and,,1560236,00.html
    He manages to make the advent of electricity at his home, remembering his Grandpa and picking up a hitch-hiker fascinating and relevant. So, if you like this (Boris writes) you’ll love that (Stanley writes). Stanley’s website can be found at; Oh, and if you’re watching the rain and missing the sun, check out Villa Irene therein and sigh with affectionate envy at how the other half live.

    I hear they’re looking for a jet-setting charmer to be the next James Bond. If they made the film of Stanley and Boris: Born Blonde and Free, I wonder who they’d cast? It’d make a helluva film! Can I wear a bikini and a white belt and emerge from the sea to…. mnahh.

  19. Boris! Top column. The BBC has become, in effect, Labour’s Rent Boy. It’s so blatantly obvious that its embarassing to the public to have to put up with it masquerading as ‘unbiased’ because as soon as Lord Hutton delivered his cover up, the BBC became at the mercy of a government that has shown itself throughout this affair to be cavalier with both the careers and lives of its citizens. And thats not to mention the vile disregard for the citizens that ended up under out cluster bombs. Blair and Campbell are two faced lying imbociles, the scum that grows in the gulag toilet, and the BBC should get some backbone. I’d rather have advertisments on the tele and some fair and unbiased news than the joke that the corporation has now become.

  20. What worries me is that the ‘censuring’ of John Humphries is indicative of a larger issue.

    The recent terror attacks have been used by Our Dear Leader, Kim-Il Blair, as a springboard from which to launch a raft of ill-considered, knee-jerk attacks on the civil liberties this country has long stood for.

    The start of the slippery slope comes with the much-vaunted introduction of legislation to gag and, if required, deport Islamic mullahs who ‘promote or incite’ terrorism.

    While I hate what these idiots spout, freedom of speech defends their right to spout it. It is, of course, our inalienable right to call them cretins when they do so.

    However, once you ban them, where does the line next slide to?

    The censuring of John Humphries is a prime example. He criticised – in a light-hearted manner – those who would wish to remove our rights ‘for our own protection’.

    How long before criticising our political leaders becomes a criminal offence?

    I’ve already ranted about this on my Blog, and I’m not going to reproduce the article verbatim here. But I do call on Boris, and all other right-thinking politicians of whatever colour – please, stand up and make it clear to Kim-Il Blair and the Cretinous Cabinet that we won’t stand for the erosion and withdrawal of ANY of our civil liberties, whatever the excuse.


  21. Now that’s what I call entertainment
    we’re witnessing history in the making
    written by the winners and the
    people who say wherever there
    is money to be made it’s
    all there for the taking

    You may have read about it in
    the papers
    there’s kids trained on arcade
    games and space invaders
    who get target practice at home
    aiming pistols at their
    playstations, and now they’re
    taking all their orders from
    George Walker Texas Ranger

    knowing that if they don’t do
    as they’re told they’ll get
    called traitors, even if it means
    they’ll be hated by their neighbours

    but why on earth should they care
    they’re laughing in the face of danger
    doing what they do best just to
    make the world a little safer

    So when they get killed crippled
    or decorated and some of the soldiers
    start to wonder where the
    hell the parade is, they’ll have to
    learn the hard way that it’s been
    going on for ages, that there’s
    lots of money to be made in a war
    that rages

    So who pays the price?
    Who’s the hole in their pocket?
    because someone’s loss is always
    someone else’s profit

    It happens right in front of us
    but we don’t watch it
    whilst the shit Bruce Willis films
    make a killing at the box office

    I don’t mind preaching to the choir
    when freedom fries in friendly
    fire, time after time it’s no
    surprise, it’s an eye for an eye
    until we all go blind

    This summer’s biggest blockbusters
    don’t have big name stars or much
    of a budget, just a bunch of bandits
    with camcorders and swords and
    some heads to chop off on the
    cutting room floor

    We never give in to kidnappers’
    demands, if we don’t pay them
    ransom we won’t look that bad
    because we know that the rest of
    the world understands and together
    we can all wash the blood from our hands

    But as for the arabs we have other
    plans, they’ll be smoked out of
    every right hole in the land
    till we’re sure that they’re all dead and buried in sand

    where one day our big business
    skyscrapers will stand
    it’s hard not to seperate fact
    from fiction when faced with a
    monkey like man on a mission

    a leader who learned all about
    his religion from Mel Gibson
    films with his evengalism
    whose not even capable of
    taking his own decisions
    whether it’s abortion or killing
    people in prisons

    He’s about the right size and
    daddy’s shoes fit him
    if he’s going down he’s taking
    all of us with him

    I don’t mind preaching to the choir
    when freedom fries in friendly
    fire, time after time it’s no
    surprise, it’s an eye for an eye
    till we all go blind

    Cameras can shoot nothing worse
    than the truth, it’s a tooth for
    a tooth, we’ve the pictures for
    proof, and it’s coming home to
    roost, so that’s all left to do
    is dig up Bob Hope for a morale

    Yeah GI Joe is gonna have to do
    some explaining, coz photos of
    abuse by troops sold a load of
    newspapers and caused a sensation
    across all of the stations

    Just think what a third world war
    would do for the ratings
    you may have read about it in the
    newspapers, there’s kids trained
    on arcade games in space invader
    who get target practice at home aiming pistols at their
    playstations, and now they’re
    taking orders from George Walker
    Texas Ranger

  22. Gosh Leo! You’ve made John Lennon’s Imagine seem quite thoughtful by comparison!

    Can you do anything in the style of Robert Fisk?

  23. Boris why is it that a government makes our decisions for us in a so called democracy raising taxes and spending it on what ever they please probably another car for prescott, but being sixteen it is like a dream to think of my future with the possibility of privitisation and lower taxes so i make my own decisions thanks for the emailed advice boris much appreciated

  24. The BBC is a big worry, precisely because it is so trusted – not just abroad but in Britain.

    Yet after the fiasco of the Hutton enquiry, it has consistently behaved like a state propaganda organ. One can almost hear the eggshells creaking as its journalists tiptoe across them.

    The government has destroyed ancient liberties without a squeak from supposedly independent broadcasters.

    I cannot imagine what pressure has been brought to bear to destroy so quickly the oldest tradition of journalistic independence in broadcasting. The public slapping-down of Humphrys seems to offer some slight glimpse of the forces at play.

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