Here's another apology from the BBCMaurice Chittenden and Nicholas Hellen
The BBC is in a sorry state. It regrets that John Humphrys might have upset Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary. It apologises on air to a poetry magazine for suggesting it did not review the work of female poets. It is mortified that nine viewers thought a dance act on Top of the Pops was too raunchy.
Broadcasters and their producers told last week how the fallout from the Hutton inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly was affecting their day-to-day work. They have become alarmed at the way the corporation has been made to look craven in the wake of the inquiry, which criticised its journalistic methods.
The inquiry’s findings led to the resignation of Gavyn Davies, chairman of the governors, Greg Dyke, the director-general, and Andrew Gilligan, the Today reporter who claimed the government had “sexed up” its dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
Lord Ryder, the acting chairman, has since apologised to the government and Mark Byford, the acting director- general, has annoyed his staff by suggesting that he no longer wants exclusive stories — although he has since said he still wants original journalism but does not want to use the label “exclusive”.
Many of the BBC’s rank and file are fed up with the way governors and senior managers now appear willing to grovel to authority. This week leaders of 40 union branches will meet to plan a lobby of parliament with the message: “Hands off the BBC.”
It is a sensitive time for the corporation. Its charter is under review and some politicians want to see the BBC privatised. One BBC director said last week that Tony Blair might still extract a personal apology for impugning his integrity.
This month, an inquiry chaired by David Elstein, the former chief executive of Channel 5, will publish recommendations that the licence fee, which rises to £121 a year in April, should be scrapped.
In future, the inquiry will say, purely public service broadcasting should be funded by tax and administered by a new public broadcasting authority that would distribute the money among different channels, including ITV. The rest of the BBC’s output would survive only by becoming a subscription channel.
Byford is old friends with Hoon from their days together at Leeds University when the politician, then a law lecturer, lent Byford his car so he could take his future wife home from a St Valentine’s disco.
The Today programme has already been forced to read out a 200-word “clarification” about Hoon’s position on the 45-minute claim on Iraqi weapons a day after the minister was interviewed by Humphrys.
Leading BBC figures say the current timid approach has only made government ministers more bullish in their treatment of the corporation.
One prominent newsreader said: “When Eddie Mair was interviewing Margaret Beckett she stopped him dead by saying, ‘Don’t be stupid’.
“Geoff Hoon was interviewed by John Humphrys for 20 minutes yet the next day they had to read out another statement explaining what he meant to say for another two minutes.”
When Alastair Campbell, the former Downing Street communications director, appeared on a Radio 5 phone-in programme to discuss the Hutton report, 80% of calls and e-mails to the studio were in favour of the BBC. But presenters read out e-mails or took phone calls in such a way that it appeared as if support for the government and the corporation was evenly matched.
Peter Horrocks, head of BBC current affairs, who drafted the newspaper advert in support of Dyke, which was signed by 9,000 members of staff, said people whom the BBC wanted to interview were trying to “use the language of Hutton” to avoid difficult questioning.
He said: “We get all sorts of press officers from councils and financial service companies using words like ‘single sourcing’ and ‘uncorroborated’ to try and throw us off things.”
Even a seemingly low-level complaint from Poetry Review that Radio 3’s The Verb programme had suggested it was not reviewing enough poetry by women led to the magazine’s letter being read out on air, after which the presenter Ian McMillan, the Barnsley poet, jokingly told listeners: “I will now resign and leave the building.”
Similarly, when nine viewers complained about the sexual overtones of a dance routine by a group called Phixx on its Top of the Pops chart show, the corporation apologised.
Political correctness is the watchword. The script of a drama called Dirty War about a terrorist attack on London has been carefully crafted to appease the Muslim lobby following the downfall of Robert Kilroy-Silk. Instead of a Helen Mirren-type crimefighter, the unlikely heroine is a Muslim woman detective.
Pierre Vicary, a union official at the BBC, said; “The staff are fed up with this knee-jerk reaction to apologise as soon as anybody criticises, before finding out whether there is any need to.”
Justin Lewis, professor of communications at Cardiff University’s school of journalism, said: “The interview between Jeremy Paxman and Alastair Campbell after the Hutton report was bizarre. I have never seen Paxman look so humble or cowed.”
Some are now fighting back. Last weekend the Today programme pointed out that Ryder had not said a single word in the House of Lords for seven years until his grovelling statement on the BBC. The report was accompanied by the song Silence Is Golden.
Employees keen to highlight the corporation’s independence have coined an alternative meaning for BBC: “Beyond Blair’s Control”