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This BBC row is not about sources - it is about power
Downing Street and Rupert Murdoch want revenge on the corporation
Thursday July 24, 2003
What a difference a day makes. The daily skirmishes between the government and BBC have seen both sides at various points claiming victory. On Sunday, when the BBC confirmed Dr David Kelly had been "the source" for its claims about the mishandling of intelligence information, the government was bullish. Now, following reports that the Newsnight's Susan Watts has a tape recording of her conversation with Dr Kelly, ministers are sounding less confident.
Yet the question now being asked is this: even if the BBC wins the battle (in other words is vindicated by the Hutton report), will it lose the war? Has the BBC, in defending Andrew Gilligan so robustly, brought about its own downfall?
For the word that recurs is "revenge". Downing Street insiders, ministers and backbench MPs are saying privately that No 10 intends to wreak vengeance on the BBC, whatever Lord Hutton decides. Forget palm pilots or tape-recordings; the real agenda now is to humble and curb Britain's public service broadcaster. This is not a row about journalistic standards. It is a fight about power.
No 10's original excuse for its attack on the BBC was the Gilligan story. At first it looked as though Alastair Campbell had a genuine spasm of anger at a particular act of reporting; that this then bubbled through his irritation at the corporation's handling of the war; and after that - well, things got out of hand. He lost it on Channel 4 News. To start with, the government seemed to have blundered into a fight and couldn't find a way back. Now I am not so sure. I think it wanted this row all along.
There were so many moments in the story of the reporting of the government's selling of the Iraq war when No 10 could have calmed things down. On every occasion, instead, they ratcheted it up again. Even now, in the gloomy pause after Dr Kelly's death, while Blair is saying little in public, New Labour operators are charging around briefing in private, upping the odds. They want to get the governors. They want to get Greg Dyke. They want a new system of regulation. The licence fee is far too generous. Get the message, BBC? As Chris Smith pointed out in the Financial Times yesterday, any attempt to link recent events to the BBC's future is little short of blackmail.
The BBC prime crime has not been sloppy reporting or an anti-war agenda. Its crime is to have pointed the finger at gaping holes in the government's case for going to war to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. If Gilligan had reported a single source to the effect that WMD were a threat, and that Campbell et al should have been more bellicose, would this row have happened? Don't be absurd. It is not the detail of language the government objects to; it is the whole story.
The BBC has done what good journalism ought to do: probing and questioning insistently - things that the government would rather not discuss. During the war it reported and commented about what was happening in the sand and cities of Iraq. It did not do what some US broadcasters - notably Fox - did, and act as a patriotic national cheerleader.
Fox, owned by Rupert Murdoch, is what Blair must have fantasised about having on his side. The network was raucously pro-administration, delivering to George Bush the rightwing commentaries and inspiring pictures he needed to help him conduct the war. How convenient it would be for any centreright, interventionist British leader to have his own, Union Jack-branded Fox.
If you doubt the influence of the Murdoch agenda on all this, look at any newsstand. The Murdoch papers have acted as the most amazingly disciplined attack force on behalf of the government, savaging the BBC in identical terms, from the Sun, to the Times, to the News of the World, using columnists, editorials and front-page splashes to pursue the cause. The attack on the BBC, orchestrated by No 10, has animated News International like nothing since its move to Wapping.
The stakes are almost as high. This time, with the communications bill soon to become law - even as amended - Murdoch has a chance of getting into terrestrial British TV. If he was able to curb the BBC in its funding and its journalism, shoving it into a narrow little box, from which timid establishment- style reporting and dreary documentaries were all that trickled out, he would be in business. He hates the BBC not because of the licence fee or its alleged liberal bias, but because it is popular and trusted. Everything his papers are now doing is designed to attack that popularity and trust.
Those papers have been intertwined with New Labour ever since it became clear that Blair would be in Downing Street. Blair wooed them, and from the first Murdoch, sensing a winner, responded.
Sun and Times journalists were courted and favoured with leaks, which they could promote as scoops; Murdoch editors were treated as visiting royalty when they were entertained at No 10 and Chequers. It is shameless, unabashed, and was driven both by Blair and by that high-minded socialist and critic of journalistic standards, Alastair Campbell.
Why do they do it? Because the deal is frank, and even on its own terms, honest. Murdoch wants media power and Blair wants reliable media support. So long as nobody takes journalistic principle or the public interest too seriously, then there is a deal to be done. One day, if Murdoch gets his way, he will be in a position of terrifying influence over any future government. So this is a dangerous time for the BBC. In some ways it has been here before. In the wake of the Falklands war, when Alasdair Milne was director general, Margaret Thatcher berated him about BBC funding and journalism in terms almost identical to those we hear from Labour now. John Birt had his rows too.
But this is worse. Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke have refused to play their allotted role as New Labour toadies. This is brave since they must know that they, and the BBC, have nowhere else to go. The Tories would privatise them like a shot. Now that the Conservative manifesto is likely to suggest slashing the licence fee, it is not hard to see a vengeful New Labour starting a Dutch auction, cutting and cutting. Then it will be curtains for the governors and the hunt will be on for a more reliable director general.
The excuse will be, no doubt, all those rubbishy game shows, pop quiz programmes and yoof channels. The assault will be muffled by high-minded essays by Peter Mandelson and Gerald Kaufman on the subject of journalistic standards - they both have PhDs in that - and numerous journalists who are miffed that they haven't been given enough airtime will go along for the ride. But no one should be in any doubt that New Labour is now deliberately menacing the independence of one of the bastions of British pluralism. This is a moment when the BBC needs its friends.