Media mud-slinging is back. And this time it's personal

Last week, a government minister and 'The Sun' newspaper found their private correspondence in the public arena. Read on, says Lucy Rouse
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The Independent Online

Anyone wanting to complain about something in the media might think of writing to the boss of the organisation concerned.

But they should think again after a week in which stories involving two of the country's biggest media organisations - the BBC and News International, publisher of The Sun - showed how letters to the top can be made public in unlikely circumstances.

News International found itself at the centre of an exposé about sexual harassment allegations against a former editor of The Sun. The MP Clive Soley named the editor, Stuart Higgins, while speaking in the House of Commons. He then went on to reveal he had received a reply to a letter sent to News International's chief executive, Les Hinton, not from Mr Hinton himself but further down the hierarchy, from The Sun's current editor, Rebekah Wade.

The immediate row focused on whether Mr Soley was right to name Mr Higgins as the person at the centre of the allegations. But clearly there are questions about why the chief executive of a national newspaper group failed to reply to personal correspondence and instead passed it to one of his editors to take up the cudgels.

"I have no doubt they are handling this very badly," says Mr Soley. "News International need to acknowledge the nature of the problem and say how they dealt with it - and it ought to be Rupert Murdoch [the proprietor of The Sun] who deals with it."

News International declined to comment.

The BBC case has broader implications. It began with Angus Stickler's report on Radio 4's Today programme last Tuesday about a man who claims he was a victim of abuse while in a children's home in Islington, north London, in the late 1970s. Margaret Hodge, now minister for children, led Islington Council in the years when Demetrious Panton, the man at the centre of Mr Stickler's story, tried to bring his case to public attention.

In his Today reports, Mr Stickler said it was in the public interest to know whether Ms Hodge had been aware of Mr Panton's case. He then re-vealed Ms Hodge had sent the BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, a letter that "was certainly not designed to encourage any further investigation of the case" and "effectively brand[ed] a former victim of child abuse as an extremely disturbed person".

After quoting extensively from Ms Hodge's letter on air, Mr Stickler concluded it was "an unprecedented personal attack by this country's minister for children against a former victim of child abuse".

Ms Hodge refused to appear on the Today programme last week and issued a statement pointing out that she had already "expressed deep regret" for the cases of child abuse in Islington. Mr Stickler's investigation was, she felt, "a concerted campaign" against her.

Mr Stickler said in his report: "Whether she was personally informed about the case was beside the point. She was leader of a council that was in chaos. It failed to investigate allegations of child abuse."

So far, so routine in the world of news and politics. But was the BBC right to broadcast extracts of a letter from a government minister to its chairman? Or was the corporation taking the moral high ground by exposing a minister's attempt to gag it? No one at the BBC could recall a previous incident when a letter to the chairman had been read out on air without permission from the writer.

The BBC says it took the view that Ms Hodge's missive wasn't simply a letter to its chairman. As well as sending a copy of the letter to her own solicitors, Ms Hodge copied the letter to the BBC's director general, Greg Dyke; his director of news, Richard Sambrook; the Today programme's editor, Kevin Marsh; and to a general fax machine in the Today office.

Ms Hodge also apparently wrote that it wasn't her intention to publish the letter "at this time", suggesting she might do so in the future, and alluded to recent difficulties between the BBC and the Government. She fell short of naming either Andrew Gilligan or David Kelly, the Today reporter and his source at the centre of the Government's monumental row with the corporation over intelligence reports about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The subsequent suicide of Dr Kelly led to the Hutton inquiry.

Those at the BBC involved in the latest controversy - from the chairman to Mr Stickler - feel that the decision to quote Ms Hodge's letter on air proves the Today programme has not "gone soft" in the wake of the Gilligan affair. Elements of her letter, particularly her description of Mr Panton as "extremely disturbed", were crucial to the story, the BBC maintains.

"The Today programme felt that the basis of public interest lay with showing how a minister responded when faced with these allegations," said a spokesperson.

But the repercussions of the Hutton inquiry mean that editorial decisions on the Today programme are likely to be subject to intense scrutiny. What's more, both the Government and the BBC appear confused about the right way, post-Hutton, to handle a disagreement about a news story.

Ironically, the only recent instance of private communication between a government minister and a BBC executive becoming public occurred at the height of the Gilligan affair. Prime Minister Tony Blair telephoned Gavyn Davies in July when the Foreign Affairs Committee report into the war on Iraq was due out. The phone call became public knowledge when it was revealed at the Hutton inquiry.

So what will Ms Hodge do now? Some senior BBC managers want to know why she didn't make a formal complaint if she believes BBC editorial guidelines have been broken. Anyone unhappy with the findings of the BBC Programme Complaints Unit can, in any case, appeal to the board of governors headed by Mr Davies.

At the end of last week, Ms Hodge apologised to Mr Panton. Her office said she was "considering all options" on what to do regarding the BBC, but it looks as if the children's minister might have felt that, in this case, discretion was the better part of valour.