Andreas Whittam Smith: The implausible 'muzzling' of the BBC

It doesn't feel like a corporation that is broken, beaten and cowed
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The Independent Online

I confess I have a disposition to believe the worst of chairmen of the BBC and their boards as defenders of editorial independence. They are, after all, appointed by the government of the day.

So when I read John Kampfner's piece in this week's New Statesman, in which he provides evidence for his thesis that the muzzling of BBC journalism that began with Hutton is far from over, I began to feel indignant but not unduly surprised.

In his article, Mr Kampfner first goes back to the corporation's handling of the repercussions of an after-dinner speech by John Humphrys, the wonderfully combative presenter of the Today programme. Mr Humphrys had apparently described interviews with Gordon Brown as boring, had noted that all you have to say is "John Prescott" and people laugh and had suggested that "some MPs couldn't give a bugger whether they lie or not". An embarrassed BBC ordered an enquiry and concluded that some of the comments were "inappropriate and misguided".

Mr Kampfner's point is that there was more to it than that. He states that when the story broke, Lord Grade, the BBC's chairman, phoned several executives "demanding that the Today presenter be sacked". Furthermore, Mark Thompson, the director general, was, according to Mr Kampfner, minded to agree with his chairman but when, on the Monday, he saw the newspaper coverage, he changed his mind.

In the event, I find most of this implausible. For no normal chairman would ask that so-and-so be sacked; rather he would plainly tell the chief executive that so-and-so's actions were damaging the enterprise or bringing it into disrepute. The implication would be that if something wasn't done, then it would be the chief executive's own position that would be at risk.

Nor would your average chairman communicate directly with the chief executive's colleagues in the manner described unless he positively wished to undermine him.

I don't know Mr Thompson. Perhaps the director general does set his policy according to what the press might say, but it is unlikely. It is not the mark of a strong manager, which is Mr Thompson's reputation.

We cannot leave it there, however, for Mr Kampfner, the recently appointed editor of the New Statesman, has in effect decided to wager his reputation on this story early in his incumbency. He gave his own article the star billing. The cover of the magazine proclaims that the BBC is "Broken, Beaten, Cowed". And when the inevitable BBC denials came in, he declared that he stood "fully behind my story in each and every detail".

The risk for Mr Kampfner is that if this story collapses about his ears, he will find it difficult to assert his authority in the future. In his article, Mr Kampfner goes on to give three further examples of what he calls a corporate loss of courage. He says that when the Attorney General's advice on the legality of the Iraq war was leaked during the general election, the BBC "farmed it out" to a diplomatic correspondent for checks thus leaving time for Channel 4 News to break the story first.

But the BBC was right to try to confirm the authenticity of the document before broadcasting it. There are many examples of forgeries being foisted on newspapers which they have confidently published.

Then Mr Kampfner states that the BBC at first underplayed the incident at the Labour Party conference when an 82-year-old was forcibly evicted for shouting "rubbish". The BBC was indeed slow, but ineffic- iency is at least as likely an explanation as disreputable intent.

The final examples concern Middle East coverage. Mr Kampfner reports the belief within the BBC editorial team that the recent creation of a Middle East bureau chief in London will lead to a restraining of its Jerusalem-based correspondent, Orla Guerin. Yet the new chief is the experienced and robust Jeremy Bowen. And on Friday, newspapers around the world were carrying the BBC's story that President Bush had revealed to Palestinian leaders that he was told by God to invade Iraq. This controversial assertion comes from a programme that hasn't even been broadcast yet. But the corporation was so proud of it that it released an early extract.

This doesn't feel like a corporation that is broken, beaten and cowed.

Mr Kampfner's thesis, then, is far from proven. If, as he says, many inside the corporation are insisting that BBC bosses are muzzling journalism and deliberately avoiding giving offence to the government and the establishment, then he has got to provide something better than hearsay. For the charge is serious and the matter of high public interest.

I am with Mr Kampfner only to this extent: when the corporation is being attacked by the Government, I haven't yet heard an aggressive defence of the BBC's editorial independence from Lord Grade. He says the right things but he doesn't exactly bound up to the ramparts as soon as the enemy appears. The impression given is of his Lordship dragging himself there with a heavy step. And this is what is unsettling the troops.