In Western democracies, courts hearing defamation cases routinely consider a journalist's "right to be wrong" as a necessary defense of free speech. The reasoning is that if every journalistic mistake was punishable by law, no one would dare say or write anything. The issue is being discussed anew by media organizations and journalists worldwide in the wake of a high-level report released this week by senior British judge Lord Brian Hutton.
The Hutton inquiry, in part, examined the merit of a BBC report last May by journalist Andrew Gilligan. The story claimed that Prime Minister Tony Blair's office had acted improperly by exaggerating intelligence on Iraq to bolster the case for war. Hutton also examined whether this may have contributed to the suicide last summer of British weapons expert David Kelly.
In his report, Hutton exonerated the government of any wrongdoing, saying it had not acted dishonorably in its presentation of evidence about Iraq's weapons capabilities. Hutton saved his most serious accusations for the BBC. He accused the national broadcaster of being lax in responding to charges by Blair's office that Gilligan's story was unfair. And he criticized the BBC for allowing such an important story to go on air without first being thoroughly checked.
"The allegations that [BBC reporter Andrew] Gilligan was intending to broadcast in respect of the government and in the preparation of the [prime minister's Iraqi intelligence] dossier were very grave allegations on a subject of great importance. And I consider that the editorial system that the BBC permitted was defective in that Mr. Gilligan was allowed to broadcast his report at 6:07 a.m. without editors having seen his script or [without] having considered whether it should have been approved," Hutton said.
The BBC's reaction was swift. Both Gavyn Davies, the chairman of the BBC's board of governors, and Director-General Greg Dyke resigned. Further resignations are possible. Dyke told reporters yesterday in London, "With the departure of Gavyn and myself, and the apology I issued on behalf of the BBC yesterday, I hope that a line can now be drawn under this whole episode."
He repeated the BBC's admission that its original story did contain inaccuracies. "I think mistakes were clearly made by the BBC, and that's life," he said. Richard Ryder, who has been appointed as a temporary replacement for Davies, has said that the Hutton report "highlighted serious defects" in the BBC's processes and procedures. He said the BBC began putting reforms in place even before the report was released.
To be sure, even BBC supporters admit that the broadcaster's quality-control procedures may not have been adequate. Martin Bell, a commentator and former independent member of parliament, once worked for the BBC as a war correspondent. In an interview with RFE/RL, he said: "No organization is perfect and what happened in the BBC.... I suppose in the last 10 or 12 years, the editorial controls loosened to a remarkable degree so that the old culture of extreme caution and fact-checking, which was there when I joined it in 1962, to some extent eroded."
But some commentators believe that Hutton's findings go too far. They point out that among British media organizations, the BBC ranks at or near the top for journalistic standards. In a poll released today, 67 percent of people surveyed in Britain said they trust the BBC to tell the truth, compared with 31 percent who trust the government to do the same.
Bell pointed out that making mistakes is inevitably part of journalism and that, in any event, while the details of the BBC story may have been wrong, the story's thrust -- that the British public were misled on Iraq -- is, in his opinion, valid. He says the Hutton report is very negative for journalism as a whole. "All journalists make mistakes from time to time," he said. "The particular [BBC story] that sparked this unprecedented row between the BBC and the government was wrong in one very important detail, but the thrust of it was correct -- which was that there was disquiet in the intelligence services about the dossier which was used to make the case for war and that the case for going to war was always exaggerated, and that the British people were deceived."
Bell's comments were echoed in the British newspaper "The Guardian." In an unsigned editorial yesterday, the paper said the BBC now faces a huge responsibility. It must ensure that it operates "according to the highest standards of accuracy and impartiality." At the same time, it must make sure there is no collective "failure of nerve." The paper said the BBC "must go on probing, must go on asking awkward questions -- and must go on causing trouble."
Blair himself, while accepting the BBC's apology yesterday, emphasized the important role that the BBC -- and the independent media in general -- must play in any free society. "I fully respect the independence of the BBC," he said. "I've got no doubt that the BBC will continue, as it should do, to probe and question the government in every proper way, and I think what this [apology] does now is, it allows us to draw a line and move on."
Indeed, Bell says it would be a loss to journalism if the main lesson for the BBC from all of this is caution. He says if the BBC -- with its size and resources -- can be intimidated, then any news organization can.