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Campbell link to Humphrys 'set-up'

By Tom Leonard (Filed: 06/09/2005)

New evidence of what John Humphrys described as a "stitch-up" linked to his long-running row with the Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell emerged yesterday.

Michael Grade, the BBC chairman, demanded an inquiry after The Times reported at the weekend that the Today presenter had implied that all Government ministers were liars in an after dinner speech.

According to the newspaper in his speech at a corporate event in June, Humphrys ridiculed senior Labour politicians, contradicted the BBC's apology over the Andrew Gilligan affair and asserted that the organisation's purpose was to "take on" the government.

The corporation has firm guidelines on public speaking which are intended to prevent BBC staff from causing a conflict of interest or jeopardising the organisation's avowed impartiality.

The Times article was written by Tom Baldwin, a political journalist with close links to the Downing Street spin machine and particularly to Mr Campbell. The story also contained criticism of Humphrys from Tim Allan, a former Labour spin doctor. Mr Allan was Campbell's deputy at the Downing Street communications department.

The Times has long faced embarrassing accusations of being slavishly pro-Labour. That embarrassment was compounded yesterday after Mark Rayner, who runs Richmond Events, the company that organised the corporate event at which Humphrys spoke, said the only existing video of the speech had been given to Mr Allan.

He accused Mr Allan, who now runs his own PR company, of reneging on a commitment he gave to use the video "exclusively and confidentially" to confirm a remark by Humphrys about politicians that had been included in a Richmond Events brochure.

"I'm very annoyed about the way the information was obtained from us and subsequently used," said Mr Rayner, adding that requests to The Times that it should not reproduce it were referred to the paper's legal department.

Humphrys is seen by the Government press machine as a major thorn in its side and was singled out by Mr Campbell as one of four BBC figures who should have been sacked as a result of the Hutton Report.

Humphrys told The Daily Telegraph yesterday that The Times story, based on a speech to communications experts which he made in a ship moored in Southampton, was a "storm on a cruise ship".

The story in the way it was presented in The Times was "utterly ridiculous", he said. "The Times has acknowledged that this morning in its leader by saying that the chairman should merely chuckle and move on. And that's it."

Humphrys said The Times article had distorted his comments, implying that he had said all Government ministers were liars and that he criticised only Labour leaders.

He pointed out that he inevitably had more to say about the party in power, adding that he had made many almost identical speeches in the past - including one to the CBI earlier this year at which government ministers were present - without sparking controversy.

Humphrys, 62, who supplements his reported 150,000 BBC salary with numerous corporate engagements, said he was paid "significantly less" for the speech than the 12,000 fee mentioned by The Times. Humphrys said he had "his suspicions" as to who provided the newspaper with the story.

Sources on The Times said that Baldwin had tried to persuade the newspaper to splash the story on Saturday. They said Robert Thomson, the editor, had insisted that yesterday's leader should go in as he had been embarrassed by renewed claims that The Times was toadying to Downing Street.

In a bizarre volte face, the editorial played down the furore it had attempted to stoke up, arguing that Humphrys was "perfectly entitled" to hold and express his views on senior government figures. It advised that Mr Grade should merely read Humphrys's speech, "chuckle and move on", adding that the Government should not exploit it to "settle old scores".

Humphrys said he understood Mr Grade's concern after reading the Times report. But he added: "I don't want to seem as if I'm fighting back. I don't think there's anything to fight back for.

Mr Allan confirmed last night that he had asked for a video of the speech but refused to say whether he had passed it to The Times.

Humphrys refused to comment on claims that he was the target of a Downing Street vendetta over the David Kelly affair other than to say it was a "matter of public record" that Alastair Campbell had called for him and three others at the BBC to be sacked after the publication of the Hutton report.

"The other three have gone and I'm still there. People can draw their own conclusions from that."