The Media Column: 'The Hutton experience has been a blessing for the corporation'

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The Independent Online

People have come to rely upon BBC News, said Mark Thompson as those around him raised glasses and cheery waitresses plied the throng with trays of tidbits. The BBC supplies utterly dependable, utterly reliable news around the clock, he continued. Well, up to a point, director-general.

Others who spoke at the 50th-anniversary party for BBC Television News, where many of Britain's best public-service news broadcasters rubbed shoulders and bent elbows in celebration, expressed similar sentiments. Apart from some very funny teasing by two of the Dead Ringers team, the catastrophic events brought about by Andrew Gilligan's weapons of mass destruction cock-up on the Today programme were bypassed. Hutton was history. With one mighty bound - so mighty it bridged the half-century since Richard Baker's voice introduced a first television-news summary that included the end of meat rationing - the BBC was free.

Fanciful? I don't think so. Since the corporation was left slumped on the ropes after being roughed up by Alastair Campbell, hammered by the Government and then given a good hiding by the referee - Hutton's employment of low blows didn't alter the verdict - it has recovered with almost indecent speed. I am among those who believe the BBC got everything it deserved over the Gilligan-Kelly affair, but have to concede that when it comes to repairing damage, the corner men at Broadcasting House and Wood Lane are as good as any in the fight game.

There's a fresh and sprightly spring in the step of the news operation. The editorial safeguards proposed by Ron Neil may be largely simplistic - the most junior of reporters is aware of the necessity for accurate note-taking - but Neil's report signifies serious intent. The plan to retrain journalists periodically has infuriated some senior correspondents, but does no harm in helping to remove the tarnish from a reputation that must be seen to be spotless. And despite fears that Hutton would effect the neutering of BBC radio and television's fiercest interrogators, I can detect no traces of forced humility creeping into the techniques of such tenacious craftsmen as Humphrys and Paxman.

The truth is - and how galling it must be for the Government - that the Hutton experience has turned out to be a blessing for the BBC.

The eminent broadcaster Charles Wheeler, a confessed BBC sceptic - the corporation has become too big, he believes, and frequently feels too pleased with itself - certainly thinks so. "A bit of criticism is good for it from time to time," he tells me. "It is good for it to be attacked and in that respect the Hutton report wasn't a bad thing. It made the BBC take a long, hard look at itself."

But Wheeler concurs with the view expressed by Thompson and other senior managers that public trust in the BBC as the world's prime supplier of unbiased news has barely diminished as a result of Hutton and the lapse in standards that was the catalyst for his report. Wheeler points out that the corporation did not attempt to defend itself over Hutton's conclusions - roundly criticised in many other areas of the media - but concentrated on maintaining the sort of service that, by and large, enjoys unparalleled public confidence at home and abroad.

Wheeler recalls that when he first went to the United States in 1965, "nobody had ever heard of the BBC". The quality of BBC productions screened by American public-service TV rapidly changed all that. Then came the expansion of a BBC news service considered by discerning viewers to be second to none - BBC World News is carried on 229 public TV stations in the US, compared to only a dozen five or so years ago.

The World Service, although tormented by market requirements in recent years, is still in business and highly respected. BBC World, the international TV news channel launched into 24 million households less than a decade ago, is now watched in some 254 million, in 200 different countries and territories. BBC America is in 38 million homes. On the domestic front, The Ten O'Clock News Extra - claimed to be the world's first interactive news bulletin - will be launched on digital outlets later this year.

As Wheeler correctly observes, with each passing day the public is realising that the Government exaggerated the WMD threat after acting on, at best, the flimsiest of evidence. The Butler Report is published tomorrow. If anticipations of its content are correct, it cannot vindicate the BBC - Gilligan made an appalling error which should have been instantly corrected - but now it is the Government, not the BBC, whose credibility is on the line.

No wonder there were smiles all round on anniversary day.

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