Back to website New York Times Feb 2 2004

Soul-Searching and Anxiety After a Report Blames BBC

Published: February 2, 2004

LONDON, Feb. 1 - It was a terrible week for the BBC, the world's largest publicly financed broadcasting organization and an institution that Britons regard as part and parcel of their country's identity.

Because of a devastating outside report that found the BBC guilty of numerous journalistic and management failings, the company lost not only its two top officers - the director general, Greg Dyke, and the chairman of the board of governors, Gavyn Davies - but also a vicious, long-running battle with the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

"This was a fight to the death between the government and the BBC, and no one currently or recently in Downing Street was going to rest until the corporation had been decapitated," an editorial in The Guardian said.

But opinion inside and outside the BBC was sharply divided on what lessons it and other British media organizations could learn from an episode generally regarded as the most painful in the BBC's history.

On Saturday, a full-page ad appeared in The Daily Telegraph, signed in the smallest of small print, by several thousand employees of the British Broadcasting Corporation. The ad made an anguished plea for the company's continued independence from the government.

"We are resolute that the BBC should not step back from its determination to investigate the facts in pursuit of the truth," the ad said. "We are dismayed by Greg's departure, but we are determined to maintain his achievements and his vision for an independent organization that serves the public above all else."

The report, by a senior judge, found that Andrew Gilligan, a BBC radio reporter, had erred by saying last May 29 that the government had inserted information it "probably knew" was incorrect in an intelligence dossier published in September 2002, to bolster its case for war against Iraq. The BBC itself, the report said, compounded the error by defending the broadcast without properly investigating it.

The judge, Lord Hutton, also exonerated the government, both in its preparation of the dossier and in the death of David Kelly, a government weapons specialist who killed himself last July when he was revealed as the source of Mr. Gilligan's broadcast.

After the report came out, the BBC's acting chairman, Lord Ryder, apologized "unreservedly" for the episode, and its acting director general, Mark Byford, said that the broadcaster would embark on an investigation into its handling of the Gilligan affair. Speaking on the "Breakfast With Frost" television show on Sunday, Mr. Byford said that Mr. Gilligan's continued assertions that "90 percent" of his broadcast was right were "not good enough for the BBC."

Mr. Byford added, "The BBC has to be absolutely clear to its values and upholding them 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year in all its output."

The left-leaning Guardian newspaper, whose reporters have also been raising questions about the government's use of intelligence information in making the case for war, responded to the Hutton report by releasing new reporters' guidelines on such issues as anonymous sources, note-taking and maintaining a cool and balanced tone in reporting.

"Some of his criticism was, in our view, over the top," Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian's editor, said of Lord Hutton. "But there are clearly lessons for all journalists in this sorry story, and it seemed a good moment to try to remind ourselves of the standards we should aspire to. If something of this sort can hit an admired and trusted news organization like the BBC, then we've probably all got something to learn."

At The Financial Times, the editor, Andrew Gowers, said in an editorial that the Gilligan affair was an important cautionary tale for British journalists, who he said were part of a "poisonous culture" of knee-jerk one-upmanship and mutual loathing between the government and the news media. As a result, he said, each side irresponsibly exaggerated and embellished its position to score points.

But Mr. Dyke, the BBC's former director general, said in a series of interviews after he departed that he disagreed with many of Lord Hutton's criticisms. And Mr. Gilligan, who also resigned last week in disgrace, continued to maintain that the gist of his story was correct.

Meanwhile, Mr. Blair's government, stung by opinion polls in which a majority of respondents said that Lord Hutton's report was a "whitewash" and that they respected the BBC more than they respected the government, tried to temper an earlier triumphal tone by sending out officials to praise the BBC.

The corporation faces a brutal fight over its government-issued charter, which is set to expire at the end of 2006. The British culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, has said that the government would use the occasion to examine every aspect of the BBC's operation - from its increasingly muscular commercial presence to the way it is financed, by a license fee paid by every Briton who owns a television set. But she seemed on Sunday to soften her earlier tone as it became clear how angrily the public had reacted to the attacks on the BBC.

"I can absolutely guarantee that the outcome of charter renewal will be a strong BBC and a BBC that is independent of government," she told the "Breakfast With Frost" program.