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Campbell's gloating felt like a kick in the head, says Humphrys

Matt Born 10 Feb 2004

The Today presenter John Humphrys broke his silence over the Hutton report yesterday by accusing Alastair Campbell of trying to "destabilise the BBC in a pretty tacky way".

In his first interview since the former law lord's damning assessment of the BBC, Humphrys said the presidential-style speech given by the former No 10 spin doctor on the day it was published felt akin to having "your head kicked in".

He said Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke - the BBC's former chairman and director-general respectively - should not have resigned over Hutton.

And he said it was laughable to suggest, as Mr Campbell did, that the BBC - "from the chairman and director-general down" - lied, while the Government told the truth. "I'm more than happy to have my record weighed in the balance with his," Humphrys said.

Humphrys, whose live, "two-way" conversation with the reporter Andrew Gilligan at 6.07am on May 29 precipitated the controversy that led to the Hutton inquiry, said Mr Campbell's "triumphalist behaviour has probably helped the BBC."

"The day Hutton was published was hellish," he told the Radio Times.

"When Alastair Campbell made his presidential appearance at the foot of a grand staircase [at the Foreign Press Association] it felt like lying in the gutter while your head's kicked in.

"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. Maybe he thought we were an easy target because we're dependent on the government of the day."

His comments will stoke the row over Mr Campbell's performance following Lord Hutton's report.

Gavyn Davies is considering suing for libel over the allegation that he lied.

Humphrys, 60, refused to discuss Lord Hutton or speculate on how the judge arrived at his conclusions.

But he left little doubt that he believed the report to be one-sided. "I was hugely surprised [by the findings], like anyone who had read the totality of the evidence."

The veteran Today presenter admitted the programme had made mistakes in its presentation of the story. "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 said.

But such slips of the tongue had been blown out of proportion, he added. "It would be bizarre if we didn't occasionally [make a mistake], broadcasting live three hours a day, six days a week."

Despite Mr Campbell's attack on the BBC, the biggest threat to the Today programme was self-censorship, Humphrys warned.

"We have to hold our nerve," he said. "There's been damage to the programme's confidence, but the editor, Kevin Marsh, has been robust and that's what matters. The biggest risk is ourselves.

"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."

His combative comments will be seen as a shot across the bows of Mark Byford, the acting director-general, who - together with other BBC chiefs - has been accused of being overly worried about upsetting the Government since the Hutton report.

On Friday, BBC journalists voiced concern after news executives, in consultation with Mr Byford, responded to a complaint by Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, by insisting the Today programme broadcast a two-minute statement by the Ministry of Defence "clarifying" what the minister had said in an interview with Humphrys.

The same day, Mr Byford indicated a sea change in the way the BBC approached news, saying it was not the corporation's job to be "competing with newspapers or whatever in breaking original exclusives".

Humphrys, who did the interview with the Radio Times before Mr Byford made his comments, defended the BBC's right to do investigative journalism.

"It's been suggested that the BBC shouldn't break news. What are we meant to do - discover a story and let someone else report it? One thing Today exists for is to put ministers under fair pressure so they tell you something they didn't mean to," he said.

The presenter also spoke about the BBC's rule banning journalists writing for newspapers, which has cost him his column in The Sunday Times.

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