Reflections on Hutton
The Hutton Report is out. It includes a devastating attack on the BBC and lets Blair, Hoon and the government generally off the hook. Gavyn Davies, the Chairman of the BBC Governors, has resigned. The Prime Minister was at his most sanctimonious in the Commons this afternoon, parading his much-vaunted ‘integrity’ like an outraged spinster who had been accused of providing carnal services to passing tradesmen. A few thoughts on this gloomy spectacle.
1. The BBC blew it. It was known that Andrew Gilligan was, journalistically speaking, a slightly loose cannon. (As if to prove that, he had a column in The Mail on Sunday — a revolting right-wing rag.) But even loose cannons hit the target sometimes. So when the uproar over his ’45 minutes’ allegation began, the BBC ought to have conducted a really thorough inquiry into his research, notes, etc. and then taken appropriate action — which might have included a correction or an outright retraction. Instead they dug in for a fight to the finish with Blair and Campbell without having checked that the ground on which they stood was absolutely secure.
2. This would never have happened under the previous Director-General, John Birt. What people forget is that the BBC got into a similar mess with the (then Tory) government in the mid-1980s over a documentary alleging fascist infiltration of the Tory party. A new Chairman (Duke Hussey) was installed by Margaret Thatcher. Hussey promptly fired Alastair Milne, the Director-General who had investigated and stood by the offending programme, and installed John Birt as Deputy DG in charge of news and current affairs. Birt installed an editorial regime of Stalinist thoroughness which ensured that nothing went out on air without being approved by the management. At the first whiff of governmental displeasure, the Birtist thought-police would be crawling over the complained-of journalism or journalist. Some of us were very critical of this regime (me especially — I was the Observer‘s TV columnist at the time), because it gave the impression that the BBC was not behaving independently — that it was too attentive to governmental whim.
All this happened partly because Birt was obsessed with news and current affairs. His successor, Greg Dyke, is quite different — he’s an entertainment and ratings man. Despite the fact that his job description includes the phrase “editor-in-chief” he seems to have taken little interest in the BBC’s journalism. His evidence to the Hutton inquiry included the astonishing admission that he only became aware of the problems with Gilligan’s story well after the event.
3. What will happen now is very much a re-run of 1987. A new Chairman will be appointed by the Government. Dyke will probably then be sacked, and replaced by someone thought to be more interested in journalism. There will be a thoroughgoing review of BBC editorial procedures, etc. etc.
4. British judges have an ancient tradition of being deferential to the government of the day. Hutton continues the tradition. Whenever he had a choice of giving the benefit of the doubt to the government or the BBC he chose to give it to the official line. This means, IMHO, that his report is likely to be biased in important respects. And the fact that he is an eminent judge proves nothing other than he is an eminent judge. After all, I remember how the Lord Chief Justice himself (Lord Widgery) was called upon to investigate the ‘Bloody Sunday’ killings in Derry in January 1972 — when soldiers of the Paratroop Regiment opened fire on unarmed civilians, killing 13. Widgery was the UK’s most eminent judge, yet his report was a deferential whitewash of the army’s behaviour, and the events of that terrible day are still being re-examined by an interminable inquiry conducted by foreign judges.
5. Another things that is obscured by the pious discussions surrounding the publication of Hutton’s report, is that sanctimonious, altar-boy Blair employed the most aggressive attack-dog this side of the Bush White House — Alastair Campbell. If you’ve ever listened to reporters’ accounts of what it was like to be on the receiving end of Campbell’s aggression you’d be inclined to be belligerent in response. This, indeed, was probably what led to the initial editorial mistakes in the BBC. They thought this was just another case of Campbell ‘trying it on’ again.
6. Gavyn Davies has taken responsibility for the BBC’s failure and resigned. He has thus behaved honourably — unlike all of Blair’s cronies (Robinson, Mandelson, Vaz, etc.), all of whom clung on to office long after a decent person would have resigned.
7. Finally, there is the Big Issue which the setting up of the Hutton inquiry served to obscure (which is why I thought it was a master-stroke by Campbell). The fundamental problem is that Blair took the UK into a war on the basis of a pre-determined but secret agreement with George Bush and false or misleading intelligence. What Hutton claims to establish is that Blair did not know the intelligence to be faulty. In which case, what has been established is that the Prime Minister is not so much a knave as a fool.