It's beyond reasonable doubt: reporters must not be cowed by the BBC's defeat

Peter Cole argues that Lord Hutton's verdict owed everything to strict legal definitions and nothing to an understanding of investigative journalism, while (below) the diary of a corporation insider shows how staff reacted to last week's dramatic events
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The Independent Online

The print media and the public have rallied round the BBC. This is necessary when a vital component of our free media might be so cast down and dispirited by all the savage things said about it that it draws up the bridge, issues warnings to reporters to go easy on the investigating, and tries to be uncontroversial for a while. That would be a mistake.

The almost complete absence of schadenfreude in the rest of the media is partly down to the esteem we all hold for the BBC, and partly to a feeling that Lord Hutton's failure to understand the journalistic process could have impli- cations for us all. Where does journalism stand today and in the immediate future?

The politicians, sanctimonious and triumphalist in their hour of victory, create a sense of foreboding about the dangers of the new confidence of the Government. It is as though, at a stroke, Lord Hutton has lifted the aura of untrustworthiness surrounding politicians. And their new friend, by criticising only the BBC in his report, has provided quantities of ammunition for those who wish to attack the media and its methods. The fear must be that by taking a legalistic view of journalism, and expressing his own views on how it should be conducted, Lord Hutton may have a neutering effect on it.

His failure to understand journalism stems from 50 years in the law. He seems to require the sort of burden of proof in a broadcast or print story that would satisfy a court of law. His analysis of the term "sexed up" illustrates the point. By saying this could be given two meanings, and selecting the one that favoured the Government, he is seeking a precision of language which is legalistic rather than reflecting everyday discourse.

To suggest Lord Hutton is demanding standards that would undermine investigative journalism is not to suggest newspapers and broadcasters should get away with sloppy or inaccurate reporting, or wing it when publishing information that might be damaging to individuals.

Much of journalism, particularly serious political or investigative reporting, is conducted outside the "beyond reasonable doubt" world so well-known to lawyers, This kind of journalism, that of exposure, is more akin to the detective work preceding a criminal trial. It is about tracking people down, talking to them, acquiring documents, studying financial accounts, spotting inconsistencies, following your nose, making connections. It is difficult, time consuming, and requires a degree of scepticism and lack of credulity of an unusual order. It also requires careful and thorough management, because when it goes wrong, as it will, it can go very wrong.

Stories emerge from whistle-blowers and disenchanted members of companies or organisations who risk their careers by bringing information to the media. Their names cannot be disclosed. Documents they provide may have to remain in the background - proof for the publisher of the story but not to be shared with the public. This would not convince Lord Hutton.

His approach also runs contrary to the currency of political reporting - the exchange of information on lobby terms, unsourced, unattributable - in which politicians themselves try to use the media for their own purposes, not always transparency of the political process.

Radio and television rely much these days on the two-way discussion between reporter in the field (even the field of war) and the presenter of the news programme. Clearly this was a disaster in the case of Gilligan 6:07, which was a story of such momentous implications that it should of course have been scripted. But what of the other two-ways which feature constantly on programmes ranging from Today on radio to the evening TV news programmes? Is Lord Hutton expecting scripts and checking in advance with senior editors whenever something contentious is to be discussed?

In the political arena it is essential for the media to expose the abuse of power or the burying of information. Would a Hutton approach to journalism have revealed the Mandelson flat loan or the Ecclestone party donation, exposed the cash for questions scandal or chronicled the cronyism in Tony Blair's Government? And what could be more important than investigating the reasons for going to war? Particularly after a so-called "dossier" based on an American PhD thesis.

As we enter the run-up to both a general election and BBC charter renewal, the politicians are basking in their comprehensive acquittal by Lord Hutton. But the public does not see it that way, with The Guardian's ICM poll on Friday finding that 31 per cent trust the BBC to tell the truth and 10 per cent the Government.

The BBC clearly needs to sort out its editorial systems for checking material. Contrary to what has been said by some broadcasters over the past few days, there is much more checking on newspapers. Everything is "scripted" and potentially controversial material will always go through a series of filters, from news editor to editor with many in between, often including the lawyer. The equivalent of Gilligan 6:07 simply would not happen.

Trust in journalists depends on accuracy, fairness and a readiness to acknowledge mistakes and apologise for them. Journalists should want to be trusted but not necessarily loved, certainly not by those in power, because they should represent the governed, those without power, those without information, and that is no route to popularity with those who wield power.

The next few months at the BBC should be a time for good management rather than bunker mentality, for brave decision making rather than taking no risks, for supporting good reporting rather than worrying about who it upsets, for challenging politicians' assertions rather than giving them a clear run in their moment of triumph. It is not a time to call off John Humphrys, but to feed him some more red meat.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield.

'There's anger, disbelief, shock. How could it be solely our fault?'

Monday: Run of the mill. No one truly believes Blair will come unstuck - he will come through with a slight nick at worst.

Tuesday: It isn't until night-time and The Sun's leak that the week kicks off in earnest. But I have no idea how bizarre the next 48 hours will be. Like a good BBC boy, I learn the news from Newsnight. But strangely, I don't feel concerned.

Wednesday: In the morning, it is the topic du jour. Who leaked it - Campbell? No, too obvious.

Expectation levels reach fever pitch at 12.30pm. Like rubberneckers at a car crash, people huddle round TVs for the verdict.

Pre-report, the atmosphere is strangely jocular. We thought the Beeb would rightly face criticism, but that the Government would have to take some heat as well. Post-report it all changes. Anger, disbelief, shock. There are audible gasps as Lord Hutton exonerates first Tony Blair then everyone else. Suddenly, cynical hacks who'd been cracking jokes at the expense of the BBC fall silent. People speak of "we", instead of the BBC. How could it be solely the BBC's fault?

By mid-afternoon the gallows humour has returned. Who will go, and when? Nothing seems to happen for an age and there is a huge cast list of suspects. So it is almost surreal when someone actually does go. Gavyn Davies's resignation is greeted with a shrug by many. In reality, many staff consider him expendable.

Thursday: Staff need little excuse to chew the fat. Who's next - Greg Dyke? Gilligan, surely? Gossip pushes the perceived injustices of Hutton's report to one side.

D-day comes at around 1.15pm. Senior managers are summoned into meetings. Everyone knows what this means, and the BBC almost grinds to a halt for 10 minutes as thousands of people stop work and start hypothesising. At first it is Dyke, then Dyke and Richard Sambrook, and at one point both of them plus the whole board of governors have quit.

Just before the official announcement we are sent an email. It simply says: "I'm leaving." The casually understated way in which the director general announces his resignation to us is actually funny. No "management speak". I'm a little choked.

That email starts a chain reaction and an hour later I am urged by a friend to go outside to witness a "small protest". A hundred staff have stopped work and headed to Television Centre to show their support for Dyke. I watch in amazement as the sparse crowd swells to more than 1,000. It even stops traffic - a remarkable spontaneous act. No matter what you think of him, and even now I can't figure out what the protesters hoped to achieve, what other boss could inspire such a reaction? Dyke duly arrives and speaks; I later find out he had a tear in his eye. This is not simply a man falling on his sword. He really cares. He doesn't want to go.

The rest of the day is a blur. I go back to my desk, work for a while, then go home with thoughts racing through my head. Why Dyke and not Gilligan? To me, and a lot of BBC staff, it just doesn't seem right. That he seemed to be pushed heightens the sense of injustice.

Friday: A far more subdued affair. We face facts. Dyke has now gone. Gilligan and Sambrook have no intention of resigning, and the media and public seem broadly to be backing the BBC.

Throughout the day there is a real danger of the BBC slipping into hand-wringing maudlin. Petitions circulate urging staff to show support for Dyke. I am just about to leave work when news comes through that Gilligan has resigned. If anyone needed to go, it was him. That was the general consensus in the newsroom. But we all thought he was desperate to hang on.

I am suffering from Hutton fatigue. Friday actually feels like a Monday; in fact, it feels much the same as Monday did. Calm and collected, the BBC breathes again. Roll on next week.

The writer is a BBC employee who wanted to remain anonymous.