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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Rather onesided « Previous | |Next »
January 29, 2004

I heard a summary of the Hutton Report on Radio National Breakfast this morning. The BBC copped it. Not the Whitehall bureaucracy for effectively named Dr Kelly to journalists; nor the Blair Government for "sexing up" the dossier on Saddam Hussein's weapons; nor the role of Alastair Campbell the Blair Government's PR man. All were cleared.

Hutton's spotlight fell directly on the BBC: on Gilligan, its Today reporter, its editorial system and its failure to make a separate investigation into the affair. The law lord's case was good government, bad media.

Well, that simplifies a complex reality about an unpopular war does it not? A simplification that will call into question the legitimacy of the Hutton Report that says it was only the media that was out of line. It's an odd account of why liberal democracy is not working all that well.

Bill Leak

Law Lords rarely finger the state in judicial inquiries. Often the judiciary turns away from facing the truth of the matter. The classic examples are Lord Denning's inquiry into the Profumo affair; and Lord Widgery's inquiry into the shooting dead of 14 unarmed demonstrators in Northern Ireland in 1972, which exonerated the Army. So that bit of liberal democracy does not work very well.

The political context of the Hutton Inquiry is Prime Minister Tony Blair's case, that there were WMD in Iraq and this was based on the intelligence he received. However, that intelligence was exaggerated, given the failure to find any WMD. Hence the conclusion that the intelligence was exaggerated for political reasons by the US, Britain and in order to make the case for war.

That exaggeration bit is what Gilligan got right. The Government did not level with its citizens. So the trust bit between government and citizens is not working well.

The effect of the Hutton Report will be to fuel a politics of media that continues the shift of emphasis to the market, privileges commercial media and marginalizes public broadcasting. No doubt the Blair Government will have its revenge on the BBC and demand that heads roll. When this episode is placed in a historical context, what is eroded is the capacity of broadcast journalism to hold the government of the day to account, to question its spin and to prevent the executive from become too anti-democratic.

The ground upon which Blair stands continues to erode. His standing in the electorate is declining at a time when he is domestic reforms pushing for increasing private involvement in the delivery of public services.

The conflict is still simmering. It is far more than the BBC (ie. Gilligan) getting it wrong with his ad-libbed comments to a small audience at 6.07 on the morning of 29 May 2003.

The BBC is
not happy
at all with the Hutton Report. It argues that the Hutton Report isdeeply flawed. Deeper issues are involved here, but it is unclear what they are. Here is one attempt by Peter Preston:

"....once the BBC is covertly cowed, once the Ofcom sector pauses for breath and goes quiet in turn, then the press itself sees its own freedoms curtailed - not just in some courtroom drone about defective systems, but in a broadcast reluctance to pick up and follow through newspaper stories which, yet again, break news in the public interest. Anybody want to take on another Tory treasurer? Anybody give the Times a helping hand?"

Preston says that he does not belong to a fixed camp in this conflict. He adds:

"Hutton is pretty convincing on Downing Street's bumbling honesty over the naming of Kelly, the relative blamelessness of Geoff Hoon, the irrelevance of what the Prime Minister said in the Far East. But he is absolutely unconvincing when he seeks to champion the cause of free journalism. He seems to come from a different age and a different culture. If he is allowed, egged on by government triumphalism, to define the boundaries of proper investigation, then media freedoms - already shadowed by an unending war against terrorism - face an ice age."

This suggests it is a conflict over the nature of media's role in a democracy when the government of the day placed fast and loose with its intelligence reports on Iraq's WMD's.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:08 AM | | Comments (0)