Millbank blamed for Today becoming minister-free zone

Rod Liddle

Today editor Rod Liddle has blamed Millbank press officers for the absence of Labour Party ministers on Radio 4’s flagship news programme.

He claims that Labour press officers, rather than ministers themselves, were responsible for last Friday’s unprecedented decision not to allow any ministers to appear on air.

"I think it comes down to a pragmatic decision on the party’s part about what’s to be gained and what could possibly be lost if they did have someone appear, and whether they want to take the risk," said Liddle. "But when you go direct to the Cabinet ministers themselves, they don’t seem to be as worried about talking to us as the press officers are." The programme became a Labour minister-free zone for the first time during the election campaign, despite repeated requests for interviews with Media Secretary Chris Smith and international development minister Clare Short the previous day.

When on Friday morning the programme’s requests were again rebuffed, Today anchor John Humphrys, who has presented the programme every day throughout the election campaign, criticised Labour on air for failing "to put up any Government spokesman on any issues".

The presenter’s tough questioning style is thought to have been behind Labour’s apparent reluctance to allow ministers to appear – a Labour press officer said last week: "It’s not our fault you’ve got John Humphrys on every day."

But Liddle said he thought Today’s approach to covering the election could also have been behind the decision. "We have had a pretty good campaign, and have been doing much more reactive stuff and more investigative journalism, following our own agenda rather than just following their line and doing education one day, health on another," said Liddle.

"We have done some strong stories, like the rigging of the postal votes and Keith Vaz’s homes, and throughout we’ve tried to present the issues through stories which we hope are more relevant to the listeners." He said there would be "no change in Today’s approach" after last week’s snub.

Although Margaret Beckett was among the guests on the programme this week, the incident is seen as a further example of Labour’s tendency to steer away from interviews with journalists it perceives as hostile.

The Prime Minister pulled out of an interview with Radio 4’s The World This Weekend earlier in the campaign and award-winning Panorama journalist John Ware has been banned from Labour’s daily press conferences.

By Julie Tomlin

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