Media accuracy is vital, but its freedom is even more so

The BBC's independence from government is now clearly under threat

Peter A Hall

Saturday January 17, 2004 The Guardian

For months, Britain has been gripped by the drama of the Hutton inquiry. All the elements of tragedy are there: a titanic clash between a political figure of overweening ambition charged with managing the public relations of the government, and a journalist tempted to the boundaries of good practice by a desire to expose its failings. In the background, a prime minister dedicated to war in an unpopular cause, concerned that his integrity has been impugned, and ultimately the death of an honourable man caught in the crossfire. As national narrative, the events are terrible and compelling. Seemingly forgotten by those caught up in the charges and counter-charges, and remarkable to an outside observer, is the level of pressure the government felt it appropriate to bring to bear on a news organisation broadcasting to a third of the TV audience and half the radio listeners in Britain. The BBC is arguably the most famous broadcasting outlet in the world, widely respected for its integrity. But buried in the documents submitted to the Hutton inquiry is evidence of how intensely it was pressured, not only to retract the now-famous report by Andrew Gilligan on the Iraq dossier of September 2002, but also to change the tenor of its news coverage of the government and the Iraq war.

The insistent letters from Alastair Campbell, director of communications in the PM's office, to Richard Sambrook, director of news at the BBC, make startling reading. On the stationery of No 10, they begin as far back as November 2001 with strident criticism not only of the stories being covered but of specific statements made by multiple reporters. In March 2003, Campbell goes so far as to say that "the PM has also expressed real concern about some of the reports" and to threaten public controversy over them.

Letters of this sort from the office of the PM would give any editor pause. But the BBC is an unusually vulnerable institution, governed by a board appointed by the government and dependent on a charter subject to periodic parliamentary approval. The pressure reached a crescendo in the wake of Gilligan's report on May 29 that a source with access to the intelligence community claimed political officials had "sexed up" the September dossier. Once named by Gilligan in the Mail on Sunday as the official who had purportedly insisted on this, Campbell had a right to be personally offended. But was it right for him to put such intense pressure, in the name of the government, on the BBC to alter its coverage?

A foreign perspective has some value. Although the US press is widely said to have been docile in the face of the Iraq invasion, it has been full of sceptical reporting about the claims of the Bush administration. A collection of New York Times columns by Paul Krugman that charges the administration with lying is now on the bestseller list. The Lies of George W Bush, by David Corn, has just been published, and Robert Greenwald has made a documentary film on the same theme. Many prominent American publications, including the Washington Post and the web journal Slate, have carried reports alleging deception on the part of the administration with regard to Iraq and other matters. In this context, the charges in Gilligan's report hardly seem unusual or egregious.

British commentators excoriate US politicians when they attempt to intimidate the media and would presumably criticise the White House for doing so. The assertion that "where the press is free, and every man can read, all is safe" may have been made by an American, but such sentiments are widely shared in Britain. Is the British public not disturbed to see its own government putting such intense pressure on the media?

Many in Britain seem to be transfixed by the notion that everything said on the BBC must be true. Perhaps this is a perverse effect of the corporation's reputation for accuracy in news reporting or the national pride it inspires. If so, that is a dangerous effect. Although accuracy is of great importance, the greater value lies in freedom of the media, and, in a world of fallible beings, this must include the freedom to make mistakes. If it was a mistake for Today to carry Gilligan's report on the dossier, and it is by no means clear that it was, surely the future of a free press depends on the media having the right to make occasional mistakes in the course of seeking out and reporting the news. That right should be accorded to the BBC no less than to any other news organisation, if it is not to become a creature of the government.

These are the issues lurking behind the Hutton inquiry. Notwithstanding how blame is apportioned for David Kelly's death, what is the appropriate stance of a government in the face of a BBC report with which it disagrees? How can the independence of the BBC from political interference be secured?

The principal bulwark between the BBC and the government is its board of governors, and the Hutton inquiry has put them under unprecedented pressure. Instead of applauding their willingness to defend the independence of their news operations from political influence, some commentators have interpreted the inquiry as a trial of the BBC itself. One can only hope that the courage of the governors will be appreciated when the Hutton report appears. But the story is not going to end there. Within the next two years, the BBC's charter is up for renewal. The secretary of state for culture, media and sport has already announced that public hearings will be held on this matter in the coming months. At stake is the future of public broadcasting in Britain.

Across the Atlantic, the airwaves are dominated by commercial broadcasting. A small network of public broadcasting stations reaches about 3% of the national radio and TV news audience. But its survival is precarious as it depends on voluntary contributions from listeners and the private sector for 70% of its revenue. Fluctuating with the political whims of the day, its funding from the federal government can vary by as much as 13% from year to year.

However, the Iraq war also provided Americans with a demonstration of the value of public broadcasting. Perhaps because it is not as desperate for an audience as its commercial rivals, its balanced news coverage left listeners with a far more accurate view of the war. A survey over the summer by the University of Maryland found that Americans who received their news from public broadcasting were much less likely than those who relied on commercial TV or the print media to believe a series of familiar myths about the war, including the notion that evidence had been found linking Iraq to al-Qaida, or that world public opinion favoured the US invasion. Of those who received their news from public radio or TV, less than a quarter held these misperceptions, while almost half of those who relied on the newspapers did, as did up to 80% of Americans watching the major networks.

For over 80 years, Britain has had a public broadcasting system dedicated to accuracy in news, independent enough from government to take chances on investigative reporting and irreverent commentary, and sufficiently insulated from commercial imperatives to offer alternative programming. The events of the autumn and the documents submitted to the Hutton inquiry have revealed that these achievements are under threat. Whatever the text of the report, this will be its sub-text. Much will depend on how the media, the public and especially the government react. At stake is not only the denouement to a tragedy, but the future of a British institution that is the envy of the world. c Peter A Hall is Krupp Foundation professor of European studies at Harvard University