Dyke accuses No 10 of 'systematic bullying'
Nicholas Hellen, Jonathon Carr-Brown and David Leppard
To back his case, he released a copy of a letter to Tony Blair providing evidence of the ill feeling that existed between No 10 and the corporation even before the BBC's controversial report claiming the government's dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was "sexed up".
Dyke's intervention threatens to wreck the truce patched together last week when Lord Ryder, acting chairman of the BBC, made an "unreserved" apology to the government after the Hutton inquiry heavily criticised the corporation and cleared the government.
The extent of public scepticism about the Hutton report is shown in a YouGov poll for today's Jonathan Dimbleby programme on ITV. More than half (55%) believe it was a whitewash, while 26% think it was balanced.
Despite Hutton, 54% believe that the government "sexed up" the dossier on Iraq's weapons — one of the central allegations made by BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan in his Today programme report.
Hutton also faces a possible legal challenge on an important point of law on the rights of the media, established by a judgment involving The Sunday Times. Anthony Scrivener QC, a former chairman of the Bar Council and an expert on appeals, said Hutton had misunderstood the principle of freedom of expression, enshrined in the Human Rights Act.
It has also emerged that No 10 would like a Tory grandee, such as John Major or Chris Patten, as the next BBC chairman to counter criticism that it is intent on crushing the corporation. Blair has told Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, to move swiftly to find a replacement.
Dyke said he had decided to breach an assurance of confidentiality to Blair because the letter, written on March 21, 2003, "demonstrates the intense pressure No 10 was putting on the BBC" during the war. It was written in reply to a critical letter from Blair, which questioned the BBC's journalistic output on the war.
The only clue to the letter's existence is on the Hutton website where Alastair Campbell, then the prime minister's director of communications, angrily describes it as "dismissive" of Blair's concerns.
In response to inquiries by The Sunday Times, Dyke said this weekend that Hutton "completely failed to acknowledge the pressure that No 10 had been putting on us". He said that Campbell had been waging a "war of attrition" with the corporation "at a time when the BBC was trying to report a very difficult story fairly and properly".
He revealed that Campbell had demanded the withdrawal from Baghdad of BBC reporters such as Rageh Omaar, claiming they were "compromised".
He said Campbell had sent letters to Richard Sambrook, the BBC's director of news, attacking the BBC's coverage of Iraq "week in and week out for a period last year". "It was a classic case of the Downing Street press office trying to intimidate the BBC," he added.
Dyke's further disclosure that he still has a private letter from Blair attacking the BBC is likely to alarm No 10. Dyke said this weekend that it would not be appropriate to release it.
His letter of March 21, 2003, displayed open defiance to Blair. Dyke wrote: "I do not mean to be rude, but having faced the biggest ever public demonstration in this country and the biggest ever backbench rebellion against a sitting government by its own supporters, would you not agree that your communications advisers are not best placed to advise whether or not the BBC has got the balance right between support and dissent?"
Dyke went on to make a trenchant defence of the BBC's duty to be impartial: "You have been engaged in a difficult battle fighting for your particular view of the world to be accepted and, quite understandably, you want that to be reported. We, however, have a different role in society. Our role in these circumstances is to try to give a balanced picture."
He insisted the government had gone beyond its "legitimate" right to complain about inaccurate stories. "Journalism is an imperfect profession and if we make mistakes, as we inevitably do, under my leadership we will always say we were wrong and apologise. However, for you to question the whole of the BBC's journalistic output across a wide range of radio, television and online services because you are concerned about particular stories which don't favour your view is unfair."
He was writing on the second day of the war in Iraq and sought to convince Blair that the BBC had already taken steps to ensure its coverage was impartial. A committee of the BBC's most senior editorial figures had taken pains to give airtime on shows such as Question Time to supporters of the war.
War correspondents' dispatches from Iraq were reviewed to see if they needed to be qualified, he wrote. However, Dyke judged that there was no sign that Iraqi "minders" were yet censoring the reports.
He wrote: "My point is that we have discussed these sorts of issues at length and made the best judgments we could. That our conclusions didn't always please Alastair is unfortunate but not our primary concern."
In his statement this weekend, Dyke said that it was in the context of a "continuous barrage of complaints" from Campbell that the BBC received his letters of June 5 and June 12 complaining about Gilligan's Today programme broadcast on May 29. Dyke said the Hutton report had failed to acknowledge this pressure.
In an attack on Campbell's probity, he continues in the statement: "It is also important to put these letters in another context. On many occasions in my time as director-general, the Downing Street press office under Mr Campbell denied stories that later turned out to be true. I could list half a dozen.
"There was never a certainty that a denial from the government's director of information meant the story wasn't true. It often meant that the Downing Street press office simply didn't want it reported."
On Campbell, Dyke, who as a former Labour donor and a member of Blair's circle knew the prime minister's communications chief well, said: "As a human being I like Alastair Campbell. He is funny, generous and loyal. However, there is another side to him. As the government director of communications he systematically bullied journalists who didn't want to report his version of events."
The prospect of Hutton's findings being challenged in the High Court was raised this weekend by some of Britain's most senior lawyers. Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, the expert on freedom of speech, said there was no doubt the BBC had strong public interest grounds to report concerns about the government's Iraq dossier even though there may have been errors in the report.
He cited the legal precedent of Albert Reynolds, the former Irish prime minister, versus The Sunday Times in 1999, which established this right. "Hutton failed to state the rights and duties of broadcasters correctly. He fails to be even-handed in the way he looks at the responsibilities of officials in the government compared with those of broadcasters," said Lester.
The prospect of a judicial review might bring into the open tensions at the BBC where there are recriminations over Ryder's apology. Some members of the BBC's executive board thought it went too far. A confidential briefing document, entitled Freedom of Speech, says Hutton was "wrong in law" and ignored key evidence critical of the government.
It may be difficult to patch over these divisions as the BBC launches disciplinary hearings for Sambrook, Kevin Marsh, editor of the Today programme, and Stephen Mitchell, head of radio news. The hearings, to be conducted by Stephen Dando, the BBC's director of human resources, will begin later this month.
Blair is concerned to be seen to guarantee the independence of the BBC and believes the appointment of a Tory grandee as chairman would signal that there would be no political interference in the corporation.
Blair met Jowell on Thursday and Friday and sources close to him say he made it clear the government had to get across the message it "did not want to cow" the BBC. He is understood to be giving particular consideration to people of "high calibre" such as Major, a former prime minister, Patten, a European commissioner, Lord Lawson, a former chancellor, and Lord Howe, a former foreign secretary. "There is no doubt that it is understood the prime minister wants a senior well-respected independent-minded Conservative in the post," said a source.
Another Downing Street source said Blair wanted senior Tories of cabinet rank to be canvassed and told that their applications "would be looked on favourably". Many in Downing Street believe one reason why the BBC dispute became such a stand-off was the close links of Dyke and Gavyn Davies, who resigned as the corporation's chairman last week, to Labour. It is felt both men were keen to demonstrate their independence.
The appointment of a new chairman will be made by Blair after a small committee has drawn up a shortlist.
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