That's a whole different story

Claims made by Andrew Gilligan in a newspaper article made it much harder for the BBC to defend its position, writes Mary Dejevsky

Lost in the virulent dispute between Downing Street and the BBC about the Today programme's defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, is one crucial fact. Gilligan was the author of two separate reports about the Government's alleged hyping of intelligence information. One took the form of an interview broadcast by Today, in which he named no names: neither his source nor the name of anyone at No 10. The other was an article that appeared below his byline in The Mail on Sunday. The headline read: "I asked my intelligence source why Blair misled us all over Saddam's weapons. His reply? One word... CAMPBELL."

In essence, the two reports made a similar claim: that No 10 had "sexed up" information about Iraq's weapons to justify the case for war. But there was one big difference. The name of the Prime Minister's communications director had not figured in the Today programme interview. It was spelt out in capital letters in the headline of Gilligan's article for The Mail on Sunday. Much of the subsequent fury expressed by Downing Street appears to derive from Alastair Campbell's determination to clear his name. No Government officials, however, have taken The Mail on Sunday to task; it has suited them to concentrate their fire on the BBC.

Gilligan's position as a member of staff at the BBC has put his employer in a difficult position. If BBC hierarchs draw the distinction between the two reports, they risk casting aspersions on their correspondent's veracity. If, as they have done, they defend him, they find themselves in the invidious position of defending themselves and their correspondent in respect of a charge that he did not actually make on air.

The Gilligan affair has highlighted once again the dilemma that the BBC confronts when it deals with the tricky issue of free-lancing by members of staff. BBC correspondents are much in demand by newspapers for their personal expertise and the credibility that the BBC imprimatur gives them. But the style of much newspaper reporting is rather different from the cool restraint of the BBC; many newspapers also have a distinct political agenda.

Around 15 years ago, when I was on the staff of the BBC, the official rules were categorical. We had to clear every article that we might write as a freelance with our head of department and there was to be no published reference to the fact that we worked for the BBC. The system of approval was ponderous - making it difficult to pen instant articles. It also bred resentment, as it was not applied across the board. Those with well-known names had an easier time obtaining approval, while the more junior among us faced an effective ban.

Ultimately, the inconsistency with which the rules were applied and the pressure from staff led to the policy being relaxed. Employees were permitted to write for "outside", so long as they were identified as working for the BBC. A year ago, however, the BBC issued new, tougher, guidelines for freelancing after the then editor of the Today programme, among others, had published newspaper columns that were deemed incompatible with the BBC's political neutrality.

Gilligan's article for The Mail on Sunday is a classic example of the editorial divide between the BBC and newspapers. Inevitably, it is prompting the BBC to examine yet again the whole vexed question of whether its staff should be allowed to write for "outside".