LONDON — The BBC has raised the temperature in its long-running spat with the government over its controversial reporting of the justification for the Iraq war.
In a surprise move bound to infuriate the BBC’s critics, the pubcaster’s chairman, Gavyn Davies, has ruled out fundamental changes to how the BBC is governed, regardless of the findings of a government-appointed committee set up to probe the suicide of government scientist David Kelly, the source of the BBC’s stories.
Lord Hutton’s inquiry into Kelly’s death is due to be published later this month, possibly as early as next week.
Both the BBC and Prime Minister Tony Blair’s administration are bracing for what could be serious criticism of their roles.
There has been speculation that if the inquiry is critical of the BBC, there could be high-level resignations at the broadcaster, possibly even of Greg Dyke, its outspoken director general.
But a bullish Davies has again insisted the BBC’s claim that the government “sexed up” an intelligence dossier to justify the case for an unpopular war was “a legitimate story for the BBC to broadcast.”
“We believe (that) — in protesting about parts of the story — the (prime minister’s) press office attacked the whole integrity of people in this organization. I believe that was an aberration,” Davies told the Financial Times in his first interview since giving evidence before Hutton in September.
Davies defended the BBC’s self-governance and dismissed the commentators who have called for the power of the BBC’s governors to be transferred to Ofcom, Blighty’s new media watchdog.
No major reforms
Critics argue the governors cannot be both regulators and non-executive directors. But Davies thinks otherwise.
“I am not planning another set of major reforms. I think it’s premature to do that,” he said.
The board has been criticized for rushing to defend the report, by Andrew Gilligan on the BBC’s Radio Four Today program, before it knew all the facts involved in the case.
Davies, however, defended the governors’ backing of Gilligan. He said: “We believe that the BBC has made some errors in bringing the story to air — we pointed out what those errors were. The idea that it was a whitewash from management is just wrong.
“But I still believe we could not shrink from defending the independence of the BBC when it was under unprecedented attack. Now, of course, when Lord Hutton reports we will think again about whether there are things that we should do.”
He insisted that while there were failures in BBC internal systems, Gilligan’s report was broadly correct and steps have already been taken to prevent future failings.
The changes include tightening up internal editorial processes and the appointment of World Service helmer Mark Byford as deputy director general to deal with a beefed-up complaints procedure.
Davies said Ofcom could not have acted as quickly as the governors have done to implement changes.
He also warned against linking Hutton’s recommendations to the government’s review of the BBC’s charter, due to be renewed at the end of 2006.
Davies’ interview coincides with a typically bullish internal email sent by Dyke to all BBC staff reassuring them there will be “no scapegoating within the BBC” as a result of Hutton’s findings.
“What is important once Hutton is published is that if the BBC is criticized we learn from whatever is written — assuming, of course, that we agree with what is said.”