Pray for Today

Downing Street's attack on the BBC could kill investigative reporting on the Today programme, warns Tim Luckhurst. Below, Ian Burrell asks the head of the World Service what effect the row will have on the corporation's audiences abroad

There is a feeling among the BBC's supporters that the corporation acquitted itself superbly during its clash of wills with Alastair Campbell. One veteran former correspondent, usually a critic of Greg Dyke, says, "The BBC has finally remembered what it is for. It has spoken for the nation. It has been braver than at any time since Suez in reflecting the contrast between public mood and government policy."

Inside Television Centre, such optimism is not universal. One paragraph in the BBC governors' statement of support for the Today programme's defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, hints at the angst brewing within the corporation. Conclusion number three states: "The Board considers that the Today programme should have kept a clearer account of its dealings with the Ministry of Defence on this story and could have also asked the No 10 press office for a response prior to broadcasting the story."

Beneath those words lurks a degree of concern that speaks volumes to those who know the BBC. Gilligan and his editor, Kevin Marsh, have been publicly vindicated. Their boss, the BBC's head of news and current affairs, Richard Sambrook, has defended his colleagues courageously.

But these journalists have been put through the mill during their battle with Campbell - and some of the most gruelling pressure has come from their employer. Gilligan, Marsh and his Today team have been obliged to justify every decision taken before Gilligan's bombshell exclusive was broadcast on 29 May, and to revisit every syllable of his script in pedantic detail. Lengthy memoranda have been written and scrutinised by committees including figures with scant working knowledge of journalism. The confidence implied in the governors' conclusion, "We are wholly satisfied that BBC journalists and their managers sought to maintain impartiality and accuracy during this episode," was not conferred automatically. Trust rarely is at the BBC. On this occasion there are plausible suggestions that it had to be won with threats of resignation.

But will that trust remain? A senior source who has observed the goings-on at Today at very close quarters says: "Everyone in News is very proud of what Today has done and the way news executives defended the programme. That is not always the case, but it was this time. But some very senior people outside News are terrified about the implications in light of charter renewal. There may well be an instinct for caution from those quarters. There often is."

It is worth considering the bigger picture. In recent years there has been a furious internal dispute about the proper role of Today. It was the programme's controversial former editor Rod Liddle who brought Gilligan to his team. Liddle, the iconoclast who once entertained readers of his Guardian column with the tale of how he nearly set fire to his penis while attempting to smoke, urinate and edit a script simultaneously, was determined to spice up his programme with tough, agenda-setting exclusives.

Gilligan provided several, including the now vindicated allegation that the European Union was drawing up a document that some would see as the foundation of a constitution for a federal state. Liddle was delighted with that. The BBC was not. After Downing Street condemned it as a "Euro scare story" and labelled the reporter "Gullible Gilligan", calls to tame the Today programme emanated even from the BBC itself. One senior colleague sought to knife Liddle by informing The Guardian that Gilligan's style of journalism "was damaging to the BBC brand". The journalist warned: "Rod thinks his job is to stir things up, and to hell with everyone else."

That was what Liddle thought. At his interview for the Today editorship, he had promised to employ reporters who would pursue original stories. He was angry when his bosses dithered about how and whether to defend the results. He told me that the real danger lay not in controversial journalism but in the BBC's routine failure to defend it immediately and aggressively.

Liddle feared that the BBC would be happier if he reverted to the Today tradition of generating stories through interviews with cabinet ministers and abandon his zeal for generating exclusives.

That was what his successor, Kevin Marsh, promised to do. Marsh is sincere in his belief that Liddle's Today programme placed too little value on interviewing. Marsh had made it his forte as editor of The World at One and PM and he has sharpened the briefing provided to Today presenters. But there is a flaw. Liddle did not shift attention toward exclusive reporting because he lacked respect for interrogators such as John Humphrys. He did it because he recognised that politicians, particularly New Labour ministers, had become adept at taking a long time to say nothing, and because, when controversial stories did emerged, no spokesman was allowed to appear on Today.

While remaining passionate about the importance of interviews, Marsh, say colleagues, has recognised elements of Liddle's logic. He acknowledges that the nature and style of Blair's Downing Street machine restricts the potential of direct, live interrogation. Revelation rarely emerges from traditional interviews. Reporting remains the best way to make trouble. The problem is that, in its most senior echelons, the BBC thought it had got rid of that approach when it sacked Liddle as editor of Today. An old battle is re-emerging. The "Pathé News" tendency of traditionalists, who insist the corporation should report what has happened and ask questions about it but not take the risk of breaking exclusive news, is firmly back on the agenda.

A new climate of concern has descended on Television Centre. The corporation may profess guarded pride in the controversy provoked by Andrew Gilligan. But some of its senior managers believe the incident brought the BBC too close to the sort of journalism more often pursued by campaigning newspaper editors. In the long term, that approach, they fear, has the potential to alienate politicians of all parties and it is not a controversy they wish to repeat. It would be depressing if the BBC turned journalistic triumph into morale destroying caution. But it does have a track record of doing just that.

Tim Luckhurst's book 'This is Today - a biography of the Today programme' is published by Aurum at £16.99

'The BBC's fundamental strength is its independence'

Mark Byford, the director of the BBC World Service, says that nine surveys have shown that the broadcaster is seen as the "most trusted and objective in the world". Speaking ahead of today's publication of the BBC annual report, Byford says that allegations of bias made by Alastair Campbell, the Government's communications chief, had the potential to damage the corporation - but only if audiences believed them.

Mr Campbell alleged in an interview on Channel 4 News that BBC journalists were prepared to broadcast any uncorroborated claims that were made to them. "It doesn't matter if it's not true," he seethed. But Byford believes that the BBC's global audience does not accept that view of the corporation. "If audiences around the world believed that, then we would have very significant challenges," he says. "But audiences around the world recognise the BBC's journalism for its integrity, its authority, its commitment to strong analysis and debate."

Byford presides over the BBC's international division, which includes the World Service, BBC World television and the corporation's international online news, all of which achieved remarkable growth during the war in Iraq. In the space of the year, the online service has grown from six million to 13 million users. The World Service has achieved its highest-ever audience in English (45 million) and has a total audience of 150 million listeners in 43 languages.

Byford says that the future of the service is dependent on its being seen to be independent of government, even though the World Service is directly funded by the Foreign Office. "The fundamental thing that you must protect and recognise as your great strength is independence from government. That has been our strength over the past 70 years and not the past 70 days," he says. "If there was a perception in the world that the BBC was a government mouthpiece or not wholly independent, that would be damaging to the BBC World Service brand."

The reputation for independence has helped to swell the World Service's American audience to 3.9 million (up 70 per cent in 18 months). Its coverage of the war in Iraq offered, says Byford, "a truly international perspective on a truly international agenda. It wasn't an American-orientated view on the war. Neither was it a British view. It was a world view."