UK Politics

Some thoughts after all that

So Greg Dyke has gone and the BBC have finally made an apology for Andrew Gilligan’s report.

The government are grinning and the Tories have made fools of themselves yet again sinking to new depths of opportunism.

The Stoppers, marginal to the affair though they are, don’t know quite how they are supposed to react. After all these are people who held protests against the BBC’s pro-war bias. Do we really need any further evidence of how far these people drifted from reality?

So where does all this leave us after Hutton? Has the government really been vindicated politically? Is the BBC about to change dramatically as a result of the criticism that it is now under? Should it?

Politically it is stating the obvious to note that Hutton provided good news for Blair and his government in clearing them of the charge of deliberately misleading or lying to parliament and the public in general. However it doesn’t get them out of the woods completely.

Sometime, someone will have to answer those questions about why a war, which I still maintain was right and just, was sold on the basis of information about WMD that now looks, well, shaky to say the least. That wasn’t Hutton’s job but it would be wishful thinking to imagine the issue is going to disappear now.

Like Bush, Blair didn’t trust the public to support the Iraq war for what it truly was – a strategic war of liberation. The war could have been presented as such, with all the references to the benefits to the wider war against terrorists, with all the benefits to regional and global security, without the ‘actually existing WMD’ fiasco.

Blair’s most convincing argument in favour of war came on the two or three occassions when he made the liberation of Iraq the centrepiece of his case. How different public opinion might be now if he and Washington had sold the war in the manner of Christopher Hitchens. How different the ‘trust’ rating would be. The question I’d like to ask is why Blair did not make strategic liberation the main thrust of his case?

Was it orders from Washington? Was it advice from spin doctors? Was it simply the pressure to follow the formalities of the UN road? Was it, as so often in these cases, a muddled combination of all or most of these factors?

And what about the BBC? Those of us who supported the war could not fail to notice that the corporation’s coverage so often mirrored that of the liberal anti-war position. It angered many of us. It raised questions about objectivity that need answering.

But make no mistake, poltically it is now open-season on the BBC and the corporations enemies are firing the shots. And remember those who are most hostile to the BBC are not primarily concerned with issues of journalistic objectivity and balance.

There are some who oppose the very existence of the BBC on ideological grounds. They despise the idea of a public service which is trusted and respected and wanted by the public, simply because its existence goes against their free-market dogma.

And of course there are commercial interests in the media who see the decline and eventual break-up of the BBC as a chance to grab more market share, more profits and more political influence. The close relationship between this latter group and the government should never be forgotten.

And when governments or politicians start opining about ethics, professionalism and integrity it is almost as noxious as when journalists laughably pretend to have not the slightest interest in (or even knowledge of) ideas such as newsroom loyalty and protecting a source and have no problem in hurling abuse at a fellow journalist who made a mistake.

None of this unpleasant aftermath however should invalidate the very legitimate questions that the BBC need to ask about their coverage of the Iraq issue. But those who value media plurality and press freedom need to be alert and Martin Bell makes some important points in the Guardian today:

I profoundly hope that the BBC does not lose its nerve as a result of this reverse. In many ways it sets the standards by which other news broadcasters are judged. This is not the time for the BBC to play safe, although there may be every temptation to do so. Not only is its reputation for independence at stake, but the future of all journalism in this country.

The way that broadcast journalism, and some print journalism, holds the government to account and never allows it to become too triumphalist, as it was yesterday, is important to our democracy – especially when the Labour government, while arguing for an unpopular war, had many cheerleaders in Britain’s foreign-owned press.

There is certainly a case for saying that it was the BBC itself that tarnished its reputation for independence by some of their reporting of Iraq. But the response to that is not to turn the organisation into some modern-day British TASS Lite or (a more realistic threat) to give the Murdoch empire their greatest reward of all.