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Britain: BBC Fending Off 'Unprecedented' Government Pressure Over Iraq Coverage

  • Kathleen Moore

Britain's vast public service broadcaster, the BBC, is clashing with a top aide to Prime Minister Tony Blair over the continuing Iraqi intelligence row. The aide, Alastair Campbell, has demanded the BBC apologize for claims that the prime minister's office exaggerated the Iraqi weapons threat. The BBC says it won't, and that it stands by its story. The broadcaster, which is largely funded through public money, has run afoul of governments before. But it says Campbell's demands amount to "unprecedented" government pressure.

Prague, 27 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The row centers on a dossier the British government drew up last year on the Iraqi weapons threat.

A British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) report last month claimed the dossier had been "sexed up" at the request of Prime Minister Tony Blair's office -- that is, certain parts had been emphasized to exaggerate the threat from Iraq.

Not true, says Alastair Campbell, Blair's director of communications. He appeared this week in front of MPs who are investigating the decision to go to war.

"I simply say in relation to the BBC story -- it is a lie, it was a lie, it is a lie that is being continually repeated. And until we get an apology for it, I will keep making sure that parliament, people like yourselves, know that it was a lie," Campbell said.

And that's not all. Campbell said the BBC had a hidden "agenda" in its coverage of the Iraq story.

"I think in the run-up [to the Iraq war], there was a disproportionate focus upon the dissent, the opposition to our position. I think that in the conflict itself, the prism that many were creating within the BBC was, 'It's all going wrong.' And now what's happening, the conflict not having led to the Middle East going up in flames, not having led to us getting bogged down for months and months and months, these same people now have to find a different rationale [for their dissent]. Their rationale is that the prime minister led the country into war on a false basis," Campbell said.

Campbell has since sent the BBC a letter demanding an apology -- one the BBC says he is not going to get.

The broadcaster is standing by the story, saying it was based on information from a "senior and credible" source. And it says Campbell's demands represent "unprecedented" government pressure.

It's not the first time the BBC has run afoul of the British government.

Towyn Mason is a former deputy secretary to the BBC's Board of Governors.

"I can't think of a similar occasion where the BBC has directly been asked to admit it was mistaken on a particular point and apologize to the government. That's pretty 'in-your-face.' But as a case of the government being annoyed with the BBC for reporting something on a sensitive subject, this is something of a pattern," Mason said.

Winston Churchill, then chancellor, wanted the British government to take control of the BBC because of what he believed was its unfair coverage of the 1926 General Strike, which had paralyzed the country. In the 1950s, the government wanted the BBC to tone down its reporting of the Suez crisis. And the 1980s saw several confrontations.

Bob Atkins worked for years at the BBC and now teaches at Cardiff School of Journalism in Wales.

"There [were] arguments between the then conservative government of Mrs. [Margaret] Thatcher and the BBC over its coverage of the Falklands war," Atkins said. "She felt the BBC was too neutral in this, not backing our boys in the way she thought it should do. There were rows in the BBC's coverage of Northern Ireland, the IRA, and a famous incident when the United States bombed Libya from bases in Britain [in 1986], and Mrs. Thatcher was extremely irritated by the BBC's coverage of that."

The 1980s also saw a rare example of the BBC governors yielding to government pressure. Home Secretary Leon Brittan was worried that a documentary on the Northern Ireland conflict would boost the morale of extremists. The BBC's Board of Governors postponed the broadcast -- and angry broadcast journalists went on strike.

But mostly, the BBC has been successful at fending off political pressure. It's respected around the world for its independent, objective reporting.

Yet the BBC -- formed in 1922 -- operates under a royal charter, is regulated by politically appointed governors, and is largely funded by public money through a license fee on television sets -- about 15 euros (about $17) per month per household.

How does it manage it?

Part of it is the setup. The board's job is actually to safeguard the BBC's editorial independence.

Mason says there's also a tradition of independence and impartiality built up over the years. The BBC is held to account if it falls from its own high standards. "It works because it works and people expect it to," he says. "Whatever happens, there is somebody who will say, 'Hold on. Stop trying to pressure the BBC.' Then you've got the wider community, the press, and everyone else, and were there a case when a government attempted to persuade the BBC to soften something or report it in a certain way, it would very quickly become apparent and there would be a row about it. As long as you have that healthy democratic hinterland in Britain, then I think you can maintain that situation of an independent broadcaster."

He adds, though, that situations can change and that editorial independence can be eroded.

Bob Franklin, a journalism professor at Sheffield University in England, says the row comes at a sensitive time for the BBC, in the run-up to the renewal of its royal charter in 2006. The charter sets out its objectives and obligations and is renewed every 10 years or so.

Some critics say that around this time, the BBC is less likely to broadcast stories that would upset the government.

"This is a long and protracted process in which the BBC is obliged to be rather sweet towards the government," says Franklin. "It can't afford to offend the government of the day. So the timing here is very crucial and such a strong statement by such a senior person in government at such a critical time [is] undoubtedly going to ricochet around the corridors of the BBC, and I would have thought, cause considerable consternation."