LONDON — BBC chairman Gavyn Davies has ankled just hours after the pubcaster bore the brunt of the criticism of law lord James Hutton’s inquiry into the death of weapons expert Dr. David Kelly, the source of the controversial BBC report claiming the government lied to justify the war in Iraq.
Davies’ decision to quit Wednesday comes less than a month after he mounted a robust defense of the BBC’s role in the battle over Kelly.
In a statement, Davies said the governors had accepted “with great reluctance and regret” his resignation, which he would tender to Prime Minister Tony Blair.
“You cannot choose your own referee, and the referee’s decision is final,” Davies said. “There is an honorable tradition in British public life that those charged with authority at the top of an organization should accept responsibility for what happens in that organization.”
Other resignations, including that of director general Greg Dyke and news maven Richard Sambrook, have not been ruled out in what is one of the blackest days in the BBC’s history.
In a scathing attack, Hutton said BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan’s allegations made on the flagship Radio Four “Today” program on May 29 were “unfounded” and “very grave.” He said the BBC’s editorial system had been “defective” in failing to investigate Gilligan’s report.
“The allegations that Mr. Gilligan was intending to broadcast in respect of the government and the preparation of the dossier were very grave allegations in relation to a subject of great importance,” Hutton’s report concluded.
“And I consider that the editorial system which the BBC permitted was defective in that Mr. Gilligan was allowed to broadcast his report at 6.07 a.m. without editors having seen a script of what he was going to say and having considered whether it should be approved.”
Hutton added: “The governors are to be criticized for failing to make a more detailed investigation into whether the allegation by Mr. Gilligan was properly supported by his notes and failing to give proper and adequate consideration to whether the BBC should publicly acknowledge that his very grave allegation should not have been broadcast.”
He said had the governors asked for Gilligan’s notes, “They would probably have discovered that the notes did not support the allegations that the government knew that the 45-minute claim (which Gilligan alleged had been inserted into the disputed intelligence dossier knowing that it was likely to be incorrect) was probably wrong.”
Hutton continued that the governors should “then have questioned whether it was right for the BBC to maintain that it was in the public interest to broadcast that allegation.”
Throughout the editorial chain of command, the pubcaster had taken on trust that Gilligan’s allegations were factually accurate.
Hutton said this was a fundamental dereliction of duty by the governors and the BBC’s board of management.
He also criticized the pubcaster’s governors for springing to the BBC’s defense without bothering to find the evidence to back up their stance.
Hutton provided only very minor criticism of the government in his investigation of the circumstances surrounding Kelly’s death on July 17. The weapons expert committed suicide after being outed as the BBC source.
Alastair Campbell, the government’s former spin doctor who led the attack on Gilligan’s story, said Hutton’s report “removed a stain on the integrity” of the Blair government.
It is hard to see how Dyke’s position as the BBC’s editor-in-chief can remain tenable. But then again, Dyke, whose animosity to the government is well known, is renowned for his combative spirit.
Crucially, he has spent much of his career defending journalists’ independence to criticize governments.
In a recorded statement broadcast immediately before Davies’ resignation statement, Dyke acknowledged key parts of Gilligan’s story were “wrong” and apologized for the mistakes.
He said new editorial procedures had been put in place, overseen by new deputy director general Mark Byford, and rules introduced, to prevent BBC journalists writing controversial pieces in newspapers.
However, Dyke said that provided Kelly’s allegations were reported accurately, the public in a modern democracy has the right to be made aware of them. The greater part of the reporting of the intelligence dossier had fulfilled this purpose.
Following his reports for the “Today” program, Gilligan had written a piece in newspaper the Mail on Sunday in which he accused Campbell of “sexing up” the intelligence dossier.
Dyke said he would not make any further comment until after a governors meeting today.
Hutton’s damning verdict on what he concluded was editorial incompetence at the BBC will intensify calls for the pubcaster to be fully regulated by communications watchdog Ofcom and is likely to lead to further tightening of BBC internal processes.
The crisis could not come at a worse time for the Beeb, whose future is the subject of an investigation by the government in the runup to the renewal of its royal charter in 2006.
Even before the corrosive verdict from Hutton, the spat over Gilligan’s report had encouraged those seeking to persuade the government that part of the BBC’s license fee should be available to other webs that screen public service programs.
Inevitably, these calls to reform the BBC will intensify.