Their own worst enemy

How can the BBC report objectively on the Hutton inquiry when it is a principal player in the drama? Tim Luckhurst on washing dirty laundry in public
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In this week's edition of Ariel, the BBC's in-house newspaper, the head of television news, Roger Mosey, writes: "The audience would expect and require us to cover this fairly and impartially, as we would any other story. The BBC's requirements to be independent and impartial apply just as much to news about the BBC as to any other story." His language masks controversy about whether BBC coverage of the first week of Lord Hutton's inquiry reached that standard. The Times described it as "warped". Labour MPs accuse the corporation of sanitising attacks on its own conduct and downplaying evidence of internal dissent.

A Today programme insider says: "When the BBC is attacked, the rule is that you should deal with it in exactly the same way as you would any other institution. But when you are talking to apologists for both sides of the argument it becomes hard to do that. The Government is not putting up its big hitters, and neither is the BBC. A Today presenter ought to be able to ask an interviewee, "Why did you do that?" But if we are only talking to apologists he can't."

The problem was illustrated on Saturday's edition of Today. The presenter Stephen Sackur introduced a discussion about coverage of the Hutton Inquiry between the editor of The Times, Robert Thomson, and the former director of BBC news, Ian Hargreaves. Sackur asked whether "exhaustive" newspaper treatment was "generating more heat than light". The contributors made no reference to the BBC's own journalism. Neither has any responsibility for it.

A BBC television news journalist says: "Today has found it more difficult than any other programme. The daft thing is that the perfect approach for the Today programme would be to bid for a discussion between Andrew Gilligan and Alastair Campbell. But it can't, so it has to be done by surrogates."

The Today staffer says: "If the Government wheeled out Alastair Campbell, then the BBC would have to put up Richard Sambrook. But the Government is protecting its own, so the BBC won't allow its top people to debate against proxies. It's difficult to put up someone who is responsible against someone who is not."

Newsnight has experienced a similar dearth of active participants. Charged with carrying the brunt of television coverage of the Hutton Inquiry, the BBC2 show has been obliged to adopt what one staffer calls "a straightforward approach". Each night a reporter has delivered a summary of the day's evidence. This has been followed by a discussion between surrogates representing the Government and the BBC. Last Tuesday, the former Today editor Rod Liddle debated with the Labour MP Chris Bryant. On Wednesday the corporate perspective came from the former BBC news executive Samir Shah and the Government line from one-time spin doctor Tim Allan.

Professor Philip Schlesinger, the director of the Media Research Institute at Stirling University, says: "There clearly is a problem about trying to be objective about your own case. That is why they have brought in ex-BBC people. But I am not conscious of any deliberate weighting of the argument. Presenters have been willing to acknowledge imperfections in the BBC's evidence and to accept that things have gone wrong. They have not tried to fudge that. I do not think it is unreasonable to let Andrew Gilligan give his evidence to the inquiry and leave it at that. That is reasonable prudence."

One BBC news reporter says internal guidance is to treat the Today correspondent's accuracy with kid gloves. "The premise on which our coverage is based is that we never said Andrew Gilligan's story was true. We just said that it was important and worth broadcasting," he says. "But some of us feel that there has not been enough briefing from our own bosses about how we should cover Hutton. The bosses have been completely immersed in the war room preparing their own evidence."

One BBC figure who has published an opinion about the corporation's position is the media correspondent Nick Higham. In an article for BBC News Online, Higham wrote: "I think there is still a question about how the BBC responded to government criticisms... about why, when it had doubts about Andrew Gilligan's original story, it was so robust in defence of its own reporting."

But that does not mean that the corporation has been reluctant to allow harsh views about its conduct to be broadcast on its own outlets. A BBC presenter claims, "We have consistently put people on our own programmes to be critical of the BBC. If there is a problem, it is at the Today programme. The team do not know what they can do and what they can't. Their editor, Kevin Marsh, was away the day Gilligan gave evidence and has been away again since. The team needs guidance. Ideally, last Thursday morning, you wanted to hear Susan Watts being grilled. But a Today presenter interrogating a Newsnight reporter about something that happened on Today would rapidly become surreal."

Philip Schlesinger says that the absence of editorial instructions has not hampered coverage. "Radio has covered the story more extensively than television, but the coverage has been fair throughout." It is a view shared even by traditional critics of the corporation. BBC executives point out that the Daily Mail has praised the corporation's balance in its coverage of the Hutton Inquiry. Stephen Glover argued in The Spectator, "This is the case for the BBC - that it is even-handed in reporting its own affairs, and will not conceal facts that may be damaging to itself."

Philip Schlesinger says: "The BBC's difficulties could become more acute as it covers the Government's case. It's going to have to tread very carefully when it covers precisely what went on inside No 10. Problems will arise when serious attribution of blame starts to come out of the inquiry."

Television staff say that their coverage has been less hampered by direct involvement than by their colleagues on Today. The latter insist that the role of Newsnight's science correspondent, Susan Watts, makes that claim risible. AToday journalist says, "People were stunned by what Susan Watts said. But the BBC could not stop her. She was going to screw us, so it was best it was a public screwing."

BBC reporters believe the most difficult period came before the inquiry opened. One says, "The nastiest moments came weeks ago, when people such as John Reid, Peter Mandelson and Ben Bradshaw were coming on with the sole objective of attacking the BBC. They had been briefed to attack, and that was all they did. That forced presenters to defend themselves. It has got better since formal proceedings started."

The BBC expected the first week to be hard. While staff were testifying it was incumbent on the corporation to report damaging allegations about their conduct. News executives believe that their programmes did that comprehensively, and they promise that coverage of evidence from government witnesses will be as detailed. The next challenge will be to achieve fairness when tough questions about the role of the governors and charter renewal are raised by politicians. At Television Centre it is assumed this will happen as soon as Lord Hutton publishes his findings.