No government trusts the BBC for very long

The political interest of this little drama is the extent to which it shows that the Government is rattled
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The Independent Online

Thank heavens for large mercies. A whole Today programme on BBC yesterday without a government minister. Just a series of people from Action Aid to the head of the Strategic Rail Authority who were actually involved in the front line of events and knew what they were talking about. If this spat between the Government and the BBC keeps up we could have a whole summer of sense and information.

It will not of course. Ministers need the oxygen of BBC publicity just as the BBC needs to be the first port of call of politicians. The two are locked too close in mutual need for even the most violent marital quarrel to split them for more than a few days.

It was ever thus. As sure as eggs are little eggs, each government starts off in a love-in with the media and ends up blaming it for everything that is going wrong. The BBC gets it in the neck because, however much governments say they subscribe to the theory of BBC independence and however much they are staffed with ex-journalists such as Alastair Campbell who should certainly know better, ministers always feel that the Corporation's primary task is to be a "neutral' - ie, uncritical - conduit of government information.

Is the spat worse this time? Probably not. Only the most naive could believe that Alastair Campbell is in a real temper tantrum with the BBC. And in so far as he is, he will only make a fool of himself. There is nothing that the English find quite so ridiculous as a politician - or a semi-politician in this case - standing on his dignity and issuing ultimatums.

The last big government-BBC row, between Norman Tebbit and Kate Adie over the bombing of Tripoli, was much more serious since it went to the heart of the role of the BBC in war and the tone its reporters are expected to adopt. In that case, despite a natural patriotic loyalty that takes over when hostilities happen, the public on the whole supported Kate Adie.

Which is Number 10's weakness in pursuing the BBC in general and Andrew Gilligan in particular on this occasion. Unlike Kate Adie, most of the public has very little idea of who Gilligan is or the precise nature of the dispute as to who accused whom of what on what basis. Nor do they care very much. But they do know who Alastair Campbell is and what he does. The wonder to the public would be if he hadn't tried to flam up the intelligence dossiers.

No, the real political interest of this little drama is the extent to which it shows that the Government is rattled. You can understand its frustration. Here you are having won a war easily against all the predictions of your critics and, instead of plaudits and a Falklands acclamation, all you get is the media carping away about your reasons for going to war and your lack of success in bringing peace and stability to the country after it. No wonder you look for someone to blame. John Major felt the same after his "game, set and match" win at Maastricht.

But the fault, dear Alastair, lies not with the BBC. The fault lies in your own appreciation of what it is that has so disturbed the British public about the Iraqi invasion. Getting at the media will not get you any nearer that understanding.

In so far as there is a real media issue involved, it is rather more long-term and depressing. The true perspective on this case is provided not by exchanges between Campbell and the BBC over sources and allegations, it is in the United States where the media are full of the details of in-fighting between the intelligence services and the extent of overspinning of information. The New York Times and The Washington Post have stories on the subject almost daily.

Over here the culture is dominated still by the theory that officials have no views and that all information should come through political channels. The off-the-record briefing, the unnamed official, is not just an obtuse and constricting way to get information, it is often the only balance to government statements.

If the parliamentary debate actually worked to reveal what goes on behind decisions, then the situation might be more tolerable. But it does not, especially not when there are large government majorities in the Commons or when, as in the case of the Iraq invasion, the main opposition party fully supports the administration. As for the select committee system, you only had to listen to the chairman and members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee interjecting their approval to some of Alastair Campbell's remarks about the BBC to know that they have as much to do with open government as the Georgian parliament of rotten boroughs had with democracy.

Alastair Campbell exemplifies the problem in his own position. Far more than the BBC, as a civil servant who heads the government information service he is supposed to be neutral and independent. He even chairs the Orwellian-sounding, and Orwellian intended, Communications and Information Committee. But of course Campbell is not independent, he has just been, until this moment at least, unanswerable in public.

The old rules about civil service anonymity are collapsing, not least because politicians are now happy to blame their officials if they get into problems. All to the good if it opens up the decisions made on our behalf to scrutiny. All to the bad if government steps in to try to close down discussion, as it is now.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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