The BBC must not go soft on the Government

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The Independent Online

Can it just be me, or are we seeing a sharp retreat by the BBC from confronting government ministers in interviews lately, especially on the Today programme? Yesterday was a case in point. The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, was allowed to talk on for over eight minutes by my watch with not one interruption from John Humphrys. The day before it was even more obvious when John Reid, the Health Secretary, was given nearly 10 minutes to rabbit on about the Government's great achievements in hospitals.

Now it is always possible that the BBC is playing a subtle game here. Give ministers their heads and by the time a few weeks is up listeners will be bombarding the Corporation with e-mails demanding a return to John Humphrys' and Jeremy Paxman's most confrontational style of questioning.

But I suspect it is somewhat simpler than that. The BBC has been thrown on the defensive by Hutton. Worse, it has been put in disarray. Judging by the way that old Labour loyalists like George Foulkes and Lord Gilbert have been allowed unquestioned freedom to bad-mouth the Corporation in general and Andrew Gilligan in particular on programmes such as Tonight and the World Tonight, the BBC is full of editors all too happy to encourage an attack on their colleagues. Far from there being a drawing of ranks, there is now a general free-for-all in which journalists are leaping into print to denounce the Corporation's move into contentious journalism and governors are distancing themselves from the stout initial stand of the BBC's chairman.

The Corporation needs to pull itself together, and fast, if it is to face down the threat of a Hutton inquiry report which is almost certain to find against its handling of the Gilligan story. Andrew Gilligan himself poses a particular problem, not least because of his e-mail to David Chidgey, the Liberal Democrat MP on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee - although his journalism seems to me to have been most unfairly traduced considering the evidence that has now come out about intelligence objections to the dossier. But the much bigger problem remains the likely criticism of the BBC's supervision of the story and its confrontation with the Government. Lord Hutton is not a man well versed in the ways of news journalism. His terms of reference are restricted to finding out why Dr Kelly killed himself. Kelly's family feel that the BBC story put him under unfair pressure. Lord Hutton is not going to be forgiving on this score, however unfairly.

At the same time the Corporation has to come to terms with two other harsh facts. One is that, on the opinion polls, its reputation with the public has suffered from this affair. Not nearly as badly as the Government's, but noticeably none the less. The second is that it has to restore reasonable relations with the Government if it is to have any hope of retaining the licence fee as its primary source of funding after the renewal of its licence.

To pretend that the Gilligan row won't affect its relations with the Government, that Tony Blair won't blame the Corporation for losing Alastair Campbell and that his replacement, David Hill, won't see this as an opportunity of bringing the BBC to heel for the next election would be naive.

Giving ministers free play to air their views without interruption is not going to solve the problem. Far from it. The BBC's great strength lies in the support, and trust, it has from the public. In the wake of Hutton it will have to do a good deal to re-establish confidence in its internal controls, fact checking and, not least, its openness to complaint and apology.

But the last thing the public wants, or the nation needs, out of this is a BBC which accepts the Government on its own evaluation or fails to challenge its version of events. There was nothing wrong about the BBC reporting internal doubts about the intelligence dossier. There were such doubts, and the evidence before Hutton of just how resistant the system was even to listen to objections within its own ranks, let alone respond to them, is proof of why we need a challenging BBC.

It is one of the very few news organisations with the resources to do this kind of work. Newspapers are too ill-funded and too easily led by the Alastair Campbell technique of planted scoops and dribbled information to act as a consistent monitor of ministers.

The fault of Today and other current affairs programmes was not that they embarked on finding competitive scoops as such, but that they became too locked into the symbiotic news relationship between the press and Number 10, too focused on a daily sparring match which resonated within the media world but not among the listeners.

What the BBC needs now is a degree of separation, a time of keeping its distance from government and developing the argument through the voices of those in the field. We don't need Blunkett - not at eight minutes, at any rate - to talk about what is good for immigrants any more than we can usefully listen to Reid telling us how fine everything is in hospitals. Talk to the asylum-seekers themselves, and the doctors and porters.

And government appearances? One minister a week on the Today programme, restricted to less than five minutes, would be quite sufficient for most of us, thank you.