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U.K.: Britain's BBC Reeling From Shockwave Of Hutton Report

  • Jan Jun

Britain is reeling from yesterday's release of the long-awaited Hutton report into the death of government weapons expert David Kelly. Senior judge Lord Brian Hutton found that Prime Minister Tony Blair and his government did not try to mislead the nation about the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. But the BBC did not escape so easily. The national broadcaster has been thrown into what's been called its biggest crisis in 50 years. RFE/RL correspondent Jan Jun reports from London.

London, 29 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The long-awaited report from the inquiry by senior British Judge Lord Brian Hutton into the death of government weapons expert David Kelly sent a shockwave across the United Kingdom.

The country's electronic media interrupted regular broadcasts yesterday to carry both Hutton's statement and the following debate in Parliament live. Hutton found that the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair did not act dishonorably in its presentation of intelligence about the threat posed by Iraq.

Hutton saved his harshest criticism for national broadcaster the BBC, and especially its management, in connection with their handling of a report broadcast last May by BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan. Hutton's report prompted not only self-critical reporting by the BBC's own journalists but also a statement by the former head of Blair's communications office, Alastair Campbell: "If the government had faced the level of criticism which today Lord Hutton has directed at the BBC, there would clearly have been resignations by now."

A short time later, the chairman of the BBC's board of governors, Gavyn Davies, announced his resignation. The BBC's director-general, Greg Dyke, apologized to the government in a statement that was also broadcast live to the nation: "The BBC does accept the certain key allegations reported by Andrew Gilligan on the 'Today' program on May 29th last year were wrong, and we apologize for them. However, we would point out again that at no stage in the last eight months have we accused the prime minister of lying, and we have said this publicly on several occasions."

Dyke himself resigned today after a BBC crisis meeting. Blair's office has called Dyke's statement a partial apology and "does not amount to a considered statement from the BBC governors -- and that's what we need."

Last May, Gilligan used Kelly as the unnamed source in a report that alleged the government had "sexed up" an intelligence dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to sell the war to the British public. Kelly killed himself a short time after his name became public as the source of the story. During the Hutton inquiry, Gilligan admitted that some of the wording in his reports was incorrect, and that parts of his report represented his interpretation rather than Kelly's own words.

The BBC is a public service broadcaster whose income is derived from a compulsory fee paid by every television owner in the U.K. The BBC has its charter -- its authorization and operating framework -- regularly renewed by government.

Dyke stressed that the BBC has "taken steps" to improve its editorial procedures and that a new complaints and compliance structure have been put in place. The crisis at the BBC -- a national institution -- is the focus of much coverage in the British press today.

"The Times," for example, in a large front-page headline, says: "Blizzard of Blame Chills BBC," while "The Guardian" says: "Crisis Cuts Through the BBC," while in subheadings noting: "Blair and Campbell Exonerated."

The former managing director of BBC television, Paul Fox, calls the controversy "the most serious crisis for the BBC in 50 years." David Baker is a politics professor at the University of Warwick: "The inquiry seems to be saying that all of the damage that was done was done by the BBC. The reporter thought he had a true story, and then did what reporters in a free society should not do, which was to manufacture the evidence to support that story."

Political analysts note that the BBC's reputation will certainly be harmed -- both domestically and globally -- by the findings of the Hutton report. Baker: "It leaves the credibility of the BBC in a position which it has been threatened with for some years. In the last 20 years, the BBC has no longer been quite the same state broadcaster that it appears to be. The BBC now outsources its programs. The code of conduct is clearly still there in the background, but it would appear that the new ethos of the BBC has moved position."

Some media and politicians -- including the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democratic opposition, Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy -- say they are not satisfied with the Hutton report. They believe it did not deal adequately with the quality of the intelligence that led the government to make claims about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They are urging the government to launch an inquiry into the reliability of the intelligence services.

Timothy Garden is a fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London: "Tony Blair must be very pleased the BBC got criticized, because that deflects away from this question -- which Hutton has not addressed -- which is the one about the quality of the intelligence in the first place."

This issue, Hutton has said, was outside his remit. Criticism of the government's handling of the Iraq war, despite the release of the Hutton report, looks likely to continue.
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