Thursday 24 July 2003

This BBC row is not about sources - it is about power

Downing Street and Rupert Murdoch want revenge on the corporation

What a difference a day makes. The daily skirmishes between the government and BBC have seen both sides at various points claiming victory. On Sunday, when the BBC confirmed Dr David Kelly had been "the source" for its claims about the mishandling of intelligence information, the government was bullish. Now, following reports that the Newsnight's Susan Watts has a tape recording of her conversation with Dr Kelly, ministers are sounding less confident.

Yet the question now being asked is this: even if the BBC wins the battle (in other words is vindicated by the Hutton report), will it lose the war? Has the BBC, in defending Andrew Gilligan so robustly, brought about its own downfall?

For the word that recurs is "revenge". Downing Street insiders, ministers and backbench MPs are saying privately that No 10 intends to wreak vengeance on the BBC, whatever Lord Hutton decides. Forget palm pilots or tape-recordings; the real agenda now is to humble and curb Britain's public service broadcaster. This is not a row about journalistic standards. It is a fight about power.

No 10's original excuse for its attack on the BBC was the Gilligan story. At first it looked as though Alastair Campbell had a genuine spasm of anger at a particular act of reporting; that this then bubbled through his irritation at the corporation's handling of the war; and after that - well, things got out of hand. He lost it on Channel 4 News. To start with, the government seemed to have blundered into a fight and couldn't find a way back. Now I am not so sure. I think it wanted this row all along.

There were so many moments in the story of the reporting of the government's selling of the Iraq war when No 10 could have calmed things down. On every occasion, instead, they ratcheted it up again. Even now, in the gloomy pause after Dr Kelly's death, while Blair is saying little in public, New Labour operators are charging around briefing in private, upping the odds. They want to get the governors. They want to get Greg Dyke. They want a new system of regulation. The licence fee is far too generous. Get the message, BBC? As Chris Smith pointed out in the Financial Times yesterday, any attempt to link recent events to the BBC's future is little short of blackmail.

The BBC prime crime has not been sloppy reporting or an anti-war agenda. Its crime is to have pointed the finger at gaping holes in the government's case for going to war to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction. If Gilligan had reported a single source to the effect that WMD were a threat, and that Campbell et al should have been more bellicose, would this row have happened? Don't be absurd. It is not the detail of language the government objects to; it is the whole story.

The BBC has done what good journalism ought to do: probing and questioning insistently - things that the government would rather not discuss. During the war it reported and commented about what was happening in the sand and cities of Iraq. It did not do what some US broadcasters - notably Fox - did, and act as a patriotic national cheerleader.

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