LONDON — Governments come and go, but the British Broadcasting Corp. just keeps going on and on — as British Prime Minister Tony Blair is finding out the hard way.
Downing Street and Broadcasting House have been engaged in a public shouting match over allegations that Blair’s communications chief Alistair Campbell “sexed up” an intelligence dossier claiming that Iraq could deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes.
The allegations were made in a report by defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan on Radio 4’s influential “Today” program on May 29.
Now Blair may be wondering if the Beeb has not got too big for its boots.
“In recent days opinion polls have shown that the British public are now more inclined to trust the BBC than the government,” says a veteran media spinner.
After enjoying an unprecedented seven-year opinion poll honeymoon, support for Blair’s administration is finally crumbling.
Voters are concerned that the U.K.’s support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq lacked hard intelligence to justify the claim that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to Middle Eastern stability.
The coalition’s continued failure to unearth nuclear, biological or chemical weapons in Iraq and the mounting guerilla action is further hardening anti-Blair sentiment.
At presstime, the pubcaster was refusing to reveal its source for the story — even after the Ministry of Defence tried to force the BBC to admit that the mole was the Ministry’s own weapons consultant and former UN weapons inspector David Kelly.
To the deep dismay of Blair and Campbell, who accused the BBC of lying, public sentiment is right behind the Beeb.
So will Blair attempt to rein in this turbulent broadcaster?
“Everyone wants to know what impact the spat will have on the BBC in the long term,” says one of the pubcaster’s journalists.
“Nobody knows for sure, but the betting is that when the opportunity arises, Blair and his gang, if they are still in power, will have their revenge.
“That time could well be when the BBC’s charter is renewed in 2006.
“You’d have to be pretty big and statesmanlike not to take revenge. After all, politicians are only human.”
So too is the pubcaster’s director general, Greg Dyke, who after a day or so when it looked as if his bosses, the BBC governors, might not back him, is enjoying enhanced credibility.
Last week the left-leaning Guardian newspaper published an annual list of the 100 most important people in British media.
Dyke was in pole position, pushing Rupert Murdoch into No. 2.
Even rabid anti-BBC middlebrow tabloid the Daily Mail, once banned from Dyke’s office because it vilified him as a debaser of BBC standards, is supporting the director general in his run-in with Blair.
Millionaire Dyke, a former Labor Party local government candidate, was once considered unsuitable to run the BBC by the Broadcasting House old guard. The reason: He had given money to Blair’s campaign to win the Labor Party leadership (at the time Dyke was head of Pearson TV) and so risked compromising the pubcaster’s reputation for political impartiality.
Since the dossier saga, Dyke’s independence looks to be beyond reproach.
“At the end of the day, the dispute over the ‘sexed up’ dossier was all about the BBC’s integrity,” reckons a former Dyke aide.
“That’s why the BBC could not issue an apology and had to stand by the justification for broadcasting the story.”
Since coming to power in 1997, and to the fury of commercial rivals, left-of-center Blair has gone out of his way to give the BBC virtually everything it wants.
The pubcaster’s rapid and costly expansion into digital TV, radio and Internet services have been underpinned by a generous license fee paid by every household in Britain.
The government, despite faltering in the polls, looks likely to remain in power for the foreseeable future. If it decides to reduce this payment as part of the charter renewal, a move that would please Murdoch, a Blair supporter, the BBC would either have to trim its services and/or introduce subscription.
Officially, the government insists the row over the dossier has no bearing on wider broadcasting policy issues.
“There is no question of seeking to bring the BBC into line,” Media Minister Tessa Jowell told a TV interviewer.