Row over dossier will not affect renewal of charter, insists Jowell

The upcoming review of the BBC's charter will not be influenced by the broadcaster's feud with the Government over Iraqi weapons, Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, promised yesterday in an attempt to damp down the row.

Mrs Jowell's conciliatory remarks were made after the BBC chairman accused ministers of trying to destroy the broadcaster's independence because it had criticised the Government.

Gavin Davies said the Government had tried to exact revenge for its reporting over Iraq. He accused Alastair Campbell of "a full frontal assault on the motivation, skill and professionalism of the entire news operation".

The Independent on Sunday reported claims that ministers had threatened the BBC with revenge. The paper quoted an unnamed BBC source saying "there have been phone calls from within government saying 'we are going to get you'".

Ms Jowell said: "There is no question whatsoever of the dispute with the BBC over [Today programme reporter Andrew] Gilligan's claim affecting in any shape or form the BBC's licence fee or its charter. We have made it plain throughout that we will uphold completely the independence of the BBC. This has been stated time and again. The charter review that was due in the normal way will be conducted in the normal way without any reference whatever to recent events."

Ms Jowell called for a truce while Lord Hutton carried out his inquiry into the suicide of Dr David Kelly and out of respect for the scientist's family.

Ms Jowell's remarks, which were endorsed by Downing Street, appeared to backtrack on an interview she gave last week in which she appeared to hint that the BBC's status could be completely overhauled and the position of the BBC Governors shaken up in the forthcoming review.

Mr Davies, in an article in The Sunday Telegraph, accused the Government of threatening the broadcaster's independence. "We are chastised for taking a different view on editorial matters from that of the Government and its supporters. Because we have had the temerity to do this, it is hinted that a system that has protected the BBC for 80 years should be swept away and replaced by an external regulator that will 'bring the BBC to heal,'" he said.

"There is only one reason why the BBC has been able to build the trust of its audiences over so many years, and that is because it is emphatically not the voice of the state," he said. "During and after the war, the BBC [has] upheld its traditional attachment to impartiality and the truth under almost intolerable pressures."

The BBC has been determined to stick by its claim that Dr Kelly was an "intelligence source" in the face of an orchestrated campaign of public attacks by Government ministers and loyalists.

Mr Davies accused Alastair Campbell of using the controversy over Mr Gilligan's report as an excuse to mount a wider attack on the BBC.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, urged both sides to cool it yesterday, warning in an interview on BBC's Breakfast with Frost that Ministerial attacks on the broadcaster would alienate the public.

"The Government are very unwise to allow themselves to be portrayed as somehow calling into question the independence of the BBC. That's a big mistake," he said. "This Government will come and go, like any other government, but the BBC is here to stay as an independent broadcasting organisation on a global level, and ministers would do well to remember that."

The Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, said it was wrong for the BBC to use the "spat with the BBC" for its own purposes.

Peter Hain, the leader of the House of Commons, fuelled the row this weekend by criticising the BBC for acting like a political opposition. But he called for a "new deal' between the BBC and the Government in an interview in The Independent on Sunday.

The BBC welcomed Ms Jowell's assurances that it would not be targeted because of its coverage.

WHY THE BBC FELT THREATENED

"This is just another example of the BBC desperately trying to defend the indefensible, namely poor and unethical journalism." Ben Bradshaw, Fisheries minister, 28 June

"The BBC's fixation with him [Alastair Campbell] and its desire to 'defeat' him at all costs led it into ... serious and damaging misjudgements. The BBC is not a publicly funded lobby group, and someone in the BBC's management chain should have stepped in earlier and quietly to end the editorialising over Iraq." Peter Mandelson 20 July (writing in The Observer)

"The way this story has been pursued by the BBC and endorsed by the board of governors raises the most profound questions about the nature of the BBC as a public-sector, public-service, publicly funded organisation." Gerald Kaufman, chairman, Commons Culture and Media Committee, 22 July

"There are many people who say, 'Why is it that my licence fee is being used to roll out lots of new services which aren't equally available to everybody'?" Chris Bryant, loyalist Labour backbencher, 23 July

"I will take very seriously the recommendations of the Hutton inquiry, particularly those that may bear on the BBC." Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport

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