Apologise first, explain later: the Corporation's survival plan

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Indy Politics

Until last Wednesday's Panorama, the strongest indication of the BBC's attitude to the Hutton report had come from the top of the corporation. In the first week of the new year, its chairman, Gavyn Davies, told the Financial Times: "We believe our story was a legitimate story for the BBC to broadcast."

"I am not planning another set of major reforms," he said, and added: "We believe that in protesting about parts of the story, the No 10 press office attacked the whole integrity of people in this organisation."

Then came Panorama, in which the people who actually make news programmes appeared to reinforce Downing Street's attack by alleging that the director general, Greg Dyke, had bet "the farm on a shaky foundation".

Some BBC journalists, not least at the Today programme on Radio 4, accuse Panorama of taking a bloody lump out of the hand that feeds it. Others believe the documentary by John Ware was a crucial opportunity for the BBC to put its regrets on the table before Lord Hutton gives it no choice. The problem now is the nature of those regrets, and the scale of the mistakes that make them necessary.

Senior editors not involved in the Gilligan affair expect robust criticism. They think Panorama identified flaws in the process that allowed the contentious report by Today's defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, to be broadcast on 29 May and then defended it not on the basis of evidence but of misplaced trust combined with a political decision that the corporation must not be seen to bend.

This argument focuses criticism on Mr Davies and Mr Dyke. The latter allowed his editors to fight a war with Downing Street without having done his homework, it says. The chairman persuaded fellow governors to stand firm not because he knew Gilligan was right, but because he refused to contemplate the alternative.

Lord Hutton could decide that there would not have been a mole hunt if the BBC's reporter had not alleged conscious dishonesty on the part of Downing Street in making the claim that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction could be ready in 45 minutes. He may say No 10 would not in turn have wanted "the source out" if the views of that source - later revealed as Dr Kelly - had not been misrepresented.

Concern is growing among seasoned BBC journalists that Lord Hutton will conclude the Kelly affair was sparked by poor journalism and could not have happened without it.

If that is the outcome, then the perceived complacency - or bullishness, depending on who you believe - of Mr Davies will be undermined. Editorial decision-making and the hybrid role of the BBC governors will be exposed to rigorous scrutiny.

As for BBC News, it has long been a seething nest of jealousy. The internal culture encourages separate programme teams to regard their colleagues as competitors. There used to be a strong belief that Hutton would not end careers, but that scenario is increasingly considered plausible.

The key question now is who knew what when. It applies from the Today programme editor, Kevin Marsh, to the chairman himself. A visibly honest response may be required in order to guarantee the acceptable renewal of both charter and licence fee.

In the frame

Andrew Gilligan, Defence correspondent, Today

Has admitted to making mistakes in his broadcast at 6.07am on 29 May, which said Downing Street had ignored intelligence community objections to make a false claim that Iraq could deploy WMD within 45 minutes. Adamant about core accuracy of his reporting. Stands by claim Dr Kelly told him the dossier was "transformed" before publication "to make it sexier". Likely to launch counter attack if he feels abandoned by the BBC.

Greg Dyke, Director general of the BBC

Failed to recognise the gravity of Mr Gilligan's claims until weeks after they were broadcast. Backed his reporter on the basis of reassurances, not hard proof. Accused by his own Panorama programme last week of "betting the farm" on his support of the reporter.

Richard Sambrook, Director of news

As head of all BBC news gatherers is ultimately responsible for the output of the Today programme but has little direct day-to-day involvement in it. Allowed himself to be convinced by Mr Gilligan's reassurances without initially demanding notes to back up the reporter's claims. Said to have stood by Gilligan even after seeing "gaps" in his notes of the interview with Dr Kelly. Advised Mr Dyke to stand and fight.

Gavyn Davies, Chairman of governors

Argued that the governors should confront Downing Street as a matter of principle. Married to Gordon Brown's political secretary, Sue Nye. Allowed broadcast of Panorama which asked whether the board was capable of policing BBC journalism. It also wondered if Mr Davies had been "making a stand to assert his independence of his political friends".


Martin Bell, Journalist and former MP

The BBC has admitted to mistakes. Where is the Government's admission? The hounding of Kelly, the traducing of Kelly before he was even buried - I'd like to think it will apologise one of these days.

Joan Bakewell, Broadcaster

Hutton has already had a big impact on the BBC. It has made staff thoughtful which is not a bad thing if it stops careless journalism. The very serious consequence would be if it were to go soft in its government coverage.