International Papers

Beeb Boss the Loser

Blair survives a tough week. Will the BBC be so lucky?

Last weekend, British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s political future looked decidedly cloudy. On Tuesday he faced a back-bench revolt against his plans to charge university students annual fees of up to $5,000, and on Wednesday the official inquiry into whether the British government intentionally deceived the British public about the threat presented by Iraq in 2002 would publish its findings. “I know my job is on the line,” he told the Observer last Sunday.

What a difference a week makes. “Tony Blair must feel like it is his birthday and his honeymoon all in the same week,” declared an op-ed in Friday’s Daily Mirror. The prime minister survived the education vote, albeit by the slim margin of five votes (a huge revolt considering the Labor Party enjoys a 161-seat majority), and was held blameless in the Hutton inquiry report. Or, as the Mirror’s Paul Routledge put it, “His judicial pal Lord Hutton has found him not guilty of all charges in the Kelly affair, and his plan to saddle university students with gigantic debts cleared its main parliamentary hurdle.”

The BBC did not fare so well. Lord Hutton, charged with investigating the death of British weapons expert David Kelly, ruled that Kelly had committed suicide and found BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan’s allegations that the government had exaggerated the imminent danger posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime “unfounded.” He declared the BBC’s editorial system “defective” for allowing Gilligan to broadcast his accusations in the first place and then failing to give the government’s complaints full consideration. BBC Chairman Gavyn Davies and Director General Greg Dyke, the corporation’s most senior officials, both resigned following the report’s release.

The press—even the right-wing papers that normally devote endless column inches to Beeb-bashing—rushed to the BBC’s defense. An op-ed in the conservative Daily Telegraph gasped, “One can scarcely believe that this is all that remains of our great institution—flattened by a two-and-a-half-minute broadcast at 6.07am.” It continued, “Of course Andrew Gilligan should have thought about what he was going to say, of course there should have been closer editorial checks but did this offence deserve the annihilation of the BBC?” Another Telegraph op-ed, using one of the BBC’s many nicknames, said: “Auntie has a great many warts and is not a benign old lady. But at its best the corporation produces innovative, creative, thought-provoking, objective television, the benchmark for the rest of the world.” Why does the fate of the BBC matter so much? In the Independent, Johann Hari explained, “The BBC is necessary because, unlike all other media outlets, it is accountable to us, the viewing public, rather than billionaire owners or corporate advertisers. … [W]ithout public-sector broadcasting, all our news passes through the filter of ownership structures dominated by the mega-rich.”

Writing in the Times of London, Simon Jenkins criticized Lord Hutton: “He gave himself terms of reference so narrow as to exclude consideration of their significance. He was like a man seeking the causes of the Great War in the driving ability of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s chauffeur.” This narrow interpretation of the inquiry’s scope was also condemned in Toronto’s Globe and Mail: Because of the way Lord Hutton interpreted his remit, “Tony Blair gets away with it, and Andrew Gilligan does not. … It’s too much work to inquire into why two great military powers propelled their cannons into a bankrupt desert dictatorship; it’s a lot more fun to trash some poor sod who screwed up on breakfast television.” (Gilligan’s “slip” actually occurred on BBC Radio 4.) An op-ed in the Independent agreed, “Gilligan made his mistakes without deliberate intent to deceive, and … his bosses were not acting maliciously in failing to correct them. It is quite striking that the Hutton report exonerated the Prime Minister [and other government officials], yet condemned the BBC for mistakes equally made in good faith.”

The Times said journalists “at the BBC and elsewhere should not feel cowed and inhibited” as a result of this week’s events. Still, the paper suggested, some British journalists had “become convinced that politicians are at all times to be considered as vile self-serving villains unless it is proved otherwise.” Although it’s appropriate for the relationship between politicians and the media to have an adversarial quality, the presumption of malice that permeates the press, “is part of a process in which legitimate scepticism evolves into an automatic cynicism that is ultimately corrosive to democracy.”

Tony Blair shouldn’t rest on his laurels just yet, though. A poll conducted for the Guardian hours after the Hutton report’s publication found that three times as many people trust the BBC to tell the truth than trust the government. Even worse for the PM, 37 percent of survey-takers said Blair should resign, while only 35 percent wanted BBC Director General Greg Dyke to go.