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BBC & deep conflicts « Previous | |Next »
February 2, 2004

The conflict between the Blair Government and the BBC over the Hutton Report is still simmering. It is now 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 slack editorial procedures; the BBC refusing to apologise for that mistake, Gilligan betraying David Kelly, or the BBC reporters and editors needing to do their jobs better.

For its part the BBC is still
not happy
with the Hutton Report. It argues that the Hutton Report is deeply flawed.

However, deeper issues are involved than Hutton's rough treatment of the BBC, or the need to reform the BBC. At this stage it is unclear what the deeper issues are, over and above the Blair Government not being trusted by British citizens. But they have to do with how liberal democracy is functioning and the inter-relationships between its different institutions.

Here are two suggestions about the deeper issues. The first is by Peter Preston writing in The Observer. He argues that it is about media freedom:

"....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.

Nick Cohen offers another account of the deeper issues buried in this political conflict fingers the judiciary. There is a history in Britain of law Lords rarely fingering the state in their 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.

Cohen argues that Hutton is now being judged to continuing to work in the tradition of judges turning away from the truth to please their political masters. Cohen says that:

"His Lordship has invented a novel gambit which Denning and Widgery might have applauded. He used his terms of reference like a mugger uses a doorway. When the BBC walked by, he leapt out and gave it a kicking. When the big boys from the Government turned into the street, he hid in the shadows".

Others concur, including Ron Liddle in The Spectator. How did Hutton manage to pull the above trick? Cohen says:

"....look what happened when Hutton was presented with apparently incontrovertible evidence that Gilligan and Kelly were half-right and the dossier was sexed up. His court heard that the Government knew the intelligence about Saddam having chemical weapons ready to fire in 45 minutes concerned puny shells which could travel a mile or so. But the Government said Saddam had missiles which could hit Jerusalem, Tehran or British bases in Cyprus. Was the misinformation a mistake or a deceit?

The judge refused to pass judgment. Examining how the Government sexed-up the dossier wasn't his job. 'Not my subject, old chap. Outside my terms of reference, don't you know.'"

Hence we have double standards in Hutton's Report. The feeling is that what he has done simply isn't fair. It was unbalanced. Hence the judiciary is now under question.

A third account holds that the deep issue is BBC versus Murdoch.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:23 AM | | Comments (0)