LONDON — The program was called “A Fight to the Death,” a reference to government scientist David Kelly, who took his own life after being exposed as the source for the BBC’s deeply contested story over the “sexed up” Iraqi arms dossier prepared by British intelligence.
The program, a primetime probe into the affair, was not aired by one of the BBC’s rival broadcasters, as might be expected, but by the pubcaster itself. And it was deeply critical of the way execs dealt with events.
It comes as the BBC awaits this week’s publication of Law Lord James Hutton’s inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Kelly’s death.
Now industryites are weighing up whether the program was a successful attempt by the Beeb to demonstrate its editorial independence and prove its journalism remains untarnished — or simply another blunder.
“A Fight to the Death” was prepared by flagship current affairs series “Panorama,” lead by one of the BBC’s most experienced journalists, the hard-nosed veteran John Ware, whose investigative reporting has won numerous awards.
He is more familiar with exposing gunmen in Northern Ireland or corporate corruption than trawling the corridors of power at Broadcasting House to highlight mistakes made by his own employer.
Despite that, the program criticized senior executives for their handling of the spat over the story and, for good measure, drew renewed attention to the “flawed reporting” of the journalist at the center of the storm, Andrew Gilligan, defense correspondent for the BBC’s “Today” radio show.
At one point in the program, the BBC’s furious general director Greg Dyke, who could be forced to ankle if Hutton comes down hard, is heard to say as the complaints about Gilligan came in from Downing Street: “Have we got this fucking story right? Because if we haven’t we had better go back on it now.”
Ware accuses the BBC of failing to conduct a thorough investigation into Gilligan’s story before rallying to its defense.
The BBC screened the program exactly a week before Hutton’s report is due to be published on Jan. 28.
So, was it bravery or blunder?
As with so much at stake in the Hutton inquiry, the answer is largely a matter of opinion.
Much of the British press is instinctively hostile to the BBC. There is also resentment from the pubcaster’s Old Guard about what they regard as the Dyke era’s less fastidious approach to journalism that they claim relies less on meticulous research and more on high-profile scoops.
True to form, one scribe reckoned “A Fight to the Death” was “a pre-emptive own goal” adding that it marked a new low in BBC infighting.
“More and more the BBC looks like a bunch of barons in the late Middle Ages trying to sort out their own version of the Wars of the Roses,” he wrote referring to a 15th century conflict that lasted for decades.
For his own part, Ware said he only had one motive in mind — to uncover the truth. He denied that he had received any interference from the hierarchy in making the program.
Dyke and head of news Richard Sambrook (also in the firing line) did not see the program before transmission.
“It absolutely, unequivocally, categorically is the case, from the moment this program was conceived to the moment we put it to bed, that there has not been at any stage, from any member (of staff) who the program does criticize, any interference whatsoever,” Ware says.
The program was “a public service” and not intended as a pre-emptive strike to take the sting out of Hutton.
Others disagree. “The BBC is getting their retaliation in first,” opines a well-placed industryite. “It’s old-style BBC journalists, who research their stories thoroughly, fighting back against the new style. It’s a carefully thought out strategy.”
But will it prevent heads rolling if Hutton finds the BBC wanting?
During this long-running row, triggered by Gilligan’s accusation that the Government had lied by exaggerating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, the BBC’s defense has been that while the detail of the story was flawed, its general thrust was correct. Therefore by running it, the BBC had acted in the public interest.
On Jan. 28 we will know what Hutton thinks. Some criticism of the BBC is inevitable.
During Hutton’s inquiry, it emerged that “Today” editor Kevin Marsh had acknowledged in an internal e-mail that Gilligan’s report was “marred by flawed reporting and the use of loose language.”
Despite this, the BBC appears confident that there will be no resignations as a result of Hutton’s findings.
“Nobody is going to resign, but it might be a close run thing,” a BBC newsman says. “If one goes they will all have to go. But if the criticisms are so serious they are resigning matters, the BBC will challenge the findings.
“There is a worry that Hutton might say it was wrong to run the story. But the criticism is likely to be about how it was presented.”
One U.K. current affairs veteran, however, argued that there would be lasting damage to the BBC’s reputation because Hutton’s investigations had shown that the pubcaster had feet of clay.
“Before Hutton, people had faith in the BBC in the way they used to have in the monarchy,” he opines.
“But by demonstrating how the BBC works internally Hutton exposed it as arrogant, blustering and bullying — just as bad as Tony Blair’s Downing Street and probably worse.”