Financial Times Jan 31 2004

Hutton's verdict could spark an unchallenged deluge of propaganda from the government

By Vaughan Jones Published: January 31 2004 4:00 | Last Updated: January 31 2004 4:00

From Mr Vaughan Jones.

Sir, As one of the BBC's previously silent supporters and admirers I cannot be alone in being apprehensive about its future. I have long appreciated the well-researched and thought-provoking analysis of BBC radio's current affairs programmes in particular and of their contribution to my education and to our democracy.

If our democracy is to be meaningful, one of the crucial roles of the BBC is to raise questions and air challenges to the hype and spin of the government of the day. In a healthy debate no party, including those that just report the issues, can realistically be expected to be infallible. In a 24-hour, competitive news market, where breaking news is vital to hold one's audience, the editorial vetting procedures advocated by Lord Hutton may not be achievable without incurring delay and a lack of spontaneity.

A sophisticated audience can distinguish between opinion and the facts, yet the impact of the Hutton report could stifle investigative reporting and inhibit the lively debate that is essential for good governance. If so it would be a tragedy for the BBC and for the country.

The UK has engaged in a war of questionable legitimacy, on what the evidence increasingly indicates was a false premise, at the expense of thousands of lives, billions of pounds of UK taxpayers' money and of our reputation abroad, yet it is not the government but the BBC that appears to be paying the price. Shooting the messenger has previously been the hallmark of repressive regimes.

If the BBC is to be constrained in its reporting by the Hutton editorial hurdles, while the government spin merchants have no such inhibitions, the public is in for a virtually unchallenged deluge of propaganda. On a constitutional note Lord Hutton has demonstrated that the principle of separation of powers and of the judiciary acting as a check and balance on the executive is wishful thinking in the UK at present. Lord Hutton's report gives every indication that he sees himself as part of the executive.

Vaughan Jones, Sandford Orcas, Dorset DT9 4RP