I DON'T know who it was who said the relationship between a journalist and a politician should be the same as that between a dog and a lamp post but he has some of my sympathy. That is not, however, how the unctuous John Birt would apparently have it. During a speech in Dublin last week, the Director-General of the BBC harked back to a time when politicians were 'exalted participants in important and largely secret processes . . . who commanded an awed respect . . . even a degree of reverence.' Treat 'em easy was the message, let's return to a time when we viewed our 'superiors' with awe. Despite his flash suits and sanctimonious smile, Mr Birt was really looking for a time when the BBC was even more part of the establishment than it is today, when it questioned little and we doffed our caps to those who we revered, where we knew our place. This sort of nonsense is only one step removed from self-censorship. Yes, it appears that could be an issue here - where the only pressure on the media is from an uncomfortable government down on its luck - just as it could be in Hong Kong for entirely different reasons. Birt is not alone in his thinking. The commentator Paul Johnson, a columnist in the Daily Mail, suggested that television viewers watching an MP being given a hard time on TV cry out as if seeing a noble beast put to the sword. 'Leave the poor fellow alone, he don't mean no harm,' they are supposed to plead at the glowing screen. There are many who would already suggest that Mr Johnson and certainly Mr Birt live on different planets from the rest of us. Speak to most people, indeed poll people on the issue, and they love to see politicians being given a hard time. You only have to watch the berating that politicians receive on political question programmes or hear them being attacked on phone-ins to realise the public want to see them tied down, exposed, revealed or whatever. When members of the public themselves have a go at politicians they make the toughest of interviewers look like dead sheep. Fortunately Mr Birt's thinking is not shared uniformly within the BBC. Within two days, the managing director of news and current affairs, Tony Hall, stood up for his journalists saying the public was constantly urging the BBC to 'push people', and calling for questions to be answered on their behalf. THIS latest Birtian gem could of course be a subtle attempt to stem criticism of the Corporation from politicians by internalising it. It could be an attempt to neutralise criticism from those who could harm the BBC by incorporating it and making it look as though he is taking action when he is doing nothing of the sort. But I suspect not. Obviously interviewers have got to play down any moves towards self-aggrandisement and can sometimes be accused of not letting the interviewee explain, substituting bombast for analysis. But no, this move to try to tie down interviewers terrifies me. And what applies here where there is no long-term threat to media and press freedom, applies just as appositely to Hong Kong. If there are forces at work here calling for deference towards politicians given the sleaze and scandal that floats just beneath the surface of this Government and public life, one hardly dares think how strong those forces could be in Hong Kong where the threat is more overt. No, tough interviewers are a good line of defence against tyranny. Politicians in Britain, the United States and no doubt in Hong Kong deploy spin doctors to massage their message, to paper over the cracks which reveal the dirt beneath, and the media should use every legitimate means at its disposal to take them on. It was a 19th century American clergyman who was asked 'Do you pray for the senators?' 'No,' he replied, 'I look at the senators and pray for the country.' His sermon still applies. LATEST on the Douglas Hurd replacement stakes is that Britain's next Foreign Secretary could be a woman. Gillian Shephard is currently Education Secretary and has risen swiftly through the ranks since entering the Commons back in 1987. She is popular and effective, and importantly for John Major, reflects his increasingly Euro-sceptic credentials. But of course it all begs questions again of when Douglas Hurd will go, and on that we are no nearer knowing.