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The British Mass Media After The Hutton Report
JNV Anti-War Briefing 54 (5 February 2004)

Posted: 13 February 2004

After Lord Hutton's criticisms of the performance of Andrew Gilligan, the Today programme, and the BBC, in the events leading up to the death of Dr David Kelly, the Director-General and the Chair of the BBC were both forced to resign, and the corporation has had to delay the publication of a key policy document defending the broadcaster's 10-year royal charter, its licence fee funding formula, and public service remit. (FT, 4 Feb. 2004, p. 3) 'One BBC journalist, looking around at his battered colleagues busy smearing themselves in ashes, said to me: "RIP the BBC".' (Alice Thomson, Telegraph, 30 Jan., p. 28)

The Daily Telegraph comments that there are those in Government who, now they have 'humbled' the corporation, want to 'decapitate' it - noting that Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell has said that Hutton should figure in the upcoming review of the BBC's charter, revenues and remit. (30 Jan., p. 29)

BBC Political Editor Andrew Marr observes, 'There will be many around the BBC who will be very concerned with the editorial independence of the BBC.' (Daily Mail, 30 Jan., p. 2)

The signs are not good. On 6 Feb. the Today programme pointed out, after interviewing the Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon, that he had just contradicted part of his testimony to the Hutton Inquiry. Mr Hoon complained. Today then read out a lengthy statement on his behalf. 'One Today insider said: "Highlighting differences in what Mr Hoon told the BBC and what he told Hutton was a perfectly fair and proper piece of journalism. We didn't make a mistake journalistically or get something wrong. Reading out a statement like this in the name of "balance" is unprecedented".' (Telegraph, 7 Feb., p. 13)

More broadly, Lord Hutton said: 'false accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others, including politicians, should not be made by the media.' There should be a restraining 'system in place'; senior managers should be brought in to give 'careful consideration to the wording of the report and to whether it is right in all the circumstances to broadcast or publish it.'

Veteran journalist Peter Preston points to the 'subtext': 'Don't attack a politician unless you have him or her bang to rights, trapped in triplicate; and even then "ponder all the circumstances".' (Observer, 1 Feb., p. 21)

The former editor of the Guardian goes on, 'When Greg Dyke fears a legal sea change which silences whistleblowers unless every jot and tittle of their allegations are independently confirmed before publication, he's not conjuring up vague fears, merely quoting a report the Government has accepted "in full".' The prescription in Hutton is 'one of
profound, chilling caution,' writes Mr Preston. If Lord Hutton is allowed to define the boundaries of proper investigation, 'then media freedoms - already shadowed by an unending war against terrorism - face an ice age.' (Observer, 1 Feb., p. 21)

General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists Jeremy Dear warns that,
'The Hutton report ... will inevitably mean journalists face greater pressure to reveal their sources and will make sources and whistleblowers think twice before coming forward.' (Independent, 5 Feb., p. 4)

Focussing on the central Hutton recommendation that 'false accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others, including politicians, should not be made by the media', the BBC's barrister Andrew Caldecott has stated his view that this, as a general and unqualified proposition, is 'wrong in law'.

Without defending the parts of the Gilligan broadcast that inaccurately represented Dr Kelly's views [see Briefing 55 for more on Gilligan], 'insofar as Dr Kelly was accurately reported - which in large measure he was - the BBC was entitled to broadcast them whether or not the BBC had itself managed conclusively to verify what he had said.' (Observer, 1 Feb., p. 1)

The BBC's lawyers 'point to previous legal rulings that "protect certain defamatory publications, even when they cannot be shown to be true".' The lawyers compiled an opinion for the BBC arguing that newspapers have a complete defence 'even where false allegations of fact have been reported, so long as the publication is the result of "responsible reporting" on a matter of legitimate public interest.' (Independent, 5 Feb., p. 4)

So, 'the law did not require the BBC to verify the allegation that the Government "sexed up" its dossier on Iraq weapons before broadcasting it.' (Independent, 5 Feb., p. 4)

A 135-page legal opinion compiled by the BBC's lawyers identifies 12 key issues 'not considered' by Lord Hutton, including the fact that Alistair Campbell gave deceitful testimony to the Foreign Affairs Committee about his role in the writing of the Sept. 2002 dossier.

The opinion also criticises Lord Hutton for failing to deal with the Sept. 2002 dossier properly, and especially for ignoring the issue of whether the dossier was referring to battlefield chemical/biological weapons, or to longer-range strategic weapons: 'the BBC believes this issue is fundamental to any full examination of both Dr Kelly's concerns and the public interest issues.' (Independent, 5 Feb., p. 4)

The BBC governors caved in, forced out Greg Dyke, the Director-General, and issued a grovelling apology to the Government. Instead, they could have defended the BBC on the basis of the legal opinion they had commissioned: 'It shows that we could have mounted a strong and convincing fightback,' said 'a BBC insider'. (Independent, 5 Feb., p. 1)

The unprecedented demonstrations by BBC staff in support of Greg Dyke fit in with poll results showing majority support for the BBC against the Government. 67% trusted the BBC to tell the truth (compared to 31% for Government ministers and 40% for intelligence chiefs); 52% thought the BBC system of governance 'worked well and should remain in place'; 56% supported the BBC licence fee system; 70% were afraid the BBC would become too cautious and 'too subject to Government behind-the-scenes pressure'. (Telegraph, 30 Jan., p. 2)

But the BBC's reputation has been damaged. The proportion of people who trust BBC news journalists to tell the truth, has fallen from 81% in Mar 2003, to 67% now. 51% thought Greg Dyke behaved improperly in the Kelly affair - almost the same level as for Mr Blair (52%). (Telegraph, 30 Jan., p. 2) 34% felt less favourably towards the BBC as a result of the Kelly affair - again, similar to Mr Blair's rating (36%). (Times, 30 Jan., p. 6)

'If the BBC is wrecked, or even weakened, by bullying politicians, then we will ALL be losers'. Anne Leslie, Daily Mail, 30 Jan., p. 12.

See also Briefing 55: Gilligan 6:07 and Briefing 57: Media Servility

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