On the line and on the level
The phone rings. There's an inquisitive and irrepressible journalist on the line. He appears to have an agenda and seems determined to produce a damaging piece, whatever the facts.
I'm not talking about Michael Crick's phone call a week ago to Tina Haynes, the former nanny to the Conservative chairman Caroline Spelman. I'm talking about the phone call the London Evening Standard put in to the BBC this week when preparing their story "The Tory MP, her nanny and a BBC witch hunt"
In his article, Keith Dovkants makes a series of allegations against Michael Crick, which boil down to this. Caroline Spelman's unusual expenses arrangements with her nanny wasn't much of a story, so why did Newsnight run it? Crick has a track record of making trouble for Conservative politicians so he, and the BBC, must be biased against the Tories, and - let's use careful language here - "Senior Tories...suspect him of sharp practice" centring on his telephone with Tina Haynes.
Let's deal with that one first - it's a pretty serious charge. In her statement Tina Haynes said she received a phone call from Michael Crick "stating that he was doing a programme about Mrs Spelman and her family life". The clear implication is that somehow Michael misled Ms Haynes (nee Rawlins) about the nature of the item he was working on.
This - as we made very clear to the Evening Standard - was not accurate. Here is a transcript of the opening exchanges in the telephone conversation.
M Hello, is that Tina Rawlins?
M Hello, my name's Michael Crick and I'm from a programme called Newsnight, at the BBC
M I'm sorry to trouble you at work. What it is I'm ringing you about a film we're working on about Caroline Spelman
M The Conservative politician. I think you used to work for her didn't you?
T I did yes
M You were working as her nanny I believe
T I was working for her as a nanny for five and a half years
M Right and were you doing political stuff as well
T Erm no I wasn't
M Sort of secretarial work or parliamentary work or...
T No I did obviously sort of like take calls for her obviously in the house if she got phone calls...
And on it went. No sharp practice about the nature of the film, no twisting of her words in reply. Michael asked if she had done political, secretarial or parliamentary work and Ms Haynes volunteered quite openly that she had not, but had taken the odd phone call and posted the occasional letter.
Did we have a story? On Newsnight we thought so. A day earlier, Giles Chichester, the leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament had resigned over the fact that he had channelled £400,000 of expenses into his family's company. It was announced that the person at Tory HQ who would be charged with cleaning up matters would be the chairman, Caroline Spelman.
Michael had learned some time earlier that Mrs Spelman had had a problem with her expenses involving her nanny some 10 years ago and that there had been row within the party at the time. Now was the time to find out.
So was it much of a story? A good way of judging is to put the words "Spelman" and "Newsnight" into Google News. At the latest count there are more than 40 stories from newspapers and other media organisations about the affair - Telegraph, Mail, ITN, Reuters - oh, and the Evening Standard.
Which brings us to bias. Yes, Michael Crick has done plenty of high profile journalism scrutinising Conservative politicians. It's hardly surprising given that for the first 18 or so years of his career as a political journalist it was the Conservatives who dominated British politics. But, apart from his love of Manchester United, Michael is rigorously un-partisan in his obsessions.
Wherever there is an untold story or questions to be answered Michael will be onto it, whether the subject is Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem or other. Does he give Labour an easy ride? No. David Blunkett's business arrangements, the Smith Institute's relationship with Gordon Brown, Labour electoral fraud in Birmingham - all have had the Crick treatment in recent times.
But don't take my word for, after all as Michael's editor I'm biased. Try this.
"The BBC had not allowed the liberal bias of some of its broadcasters to run riot. Nor had it libelled Conservatives with malicious and demonstrably false accusations. There was no smear and no McCarthyite witch-hunt...All it had done was report, quite accurately, that Caroline Spelman, the Tory Party chairwoman, got the public to pay for her nanny."
Who said that? Nick Cohen, in the Evening Standard.