Some lessons in journalism for the BBC

In newspapers, ideas for revelations normally arise from the underlying editorial stance
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Questions, questions, questions. Incessantly they come at Greg Dyke, director general of the BBC. Never mind that Mr Dyke is an effective and gifted chief executive of the corporation. For the shortcomings which its Iraq coverage has revealed have been in the making for many years.

Mr Dyke goes to the High Court today to give evidence to Lord Hutton. For me the key issue is this. Did the BBC defend Dr Kelly's identity as the source for its reports on the "sexing-up" of the Iraq dossier as comprehensively as it should have done? I believe that the various descriptions that BBC correspondents gave of their source, even though the name was withheld, made Dr Kelly believe that he was going to be unmasked.

In the reporters' anxiety to show the standing of the source, they inadvertently said more about him than they should have done. Was it this which made Dr Kelly feel that he had no alternative but to tell his superiors of his meetings with BBC journalists, which in turn generated pressures which led to the scientist's suicide?

This leads on to a second series of questions which are beyond Lord Hutton's remit. The question is whether the BBC's huge editorial team, with its ranks of editors and numerous departmental heads, actually knows how to handle a big, dangerous story that relies upon unidentifiable sources. My impression is that the BBC's skills are deficient in three respects. First, as the saga of the "sexing-up" story shows, the BBC does not always clearly put allegations it makes to those who would be damaged by them. In any newsroom, there is always a reluctance to do this because journalists and their editors fear that responses in such cases are often deliberately misleading but that they have to be taken at face value for the time being. As a result, a story might be held up until the dishonest denial had been unpicked.

This discipline is found extremely irksome by reporters and their editors. In the BBC's evidence to Lord Hutton, for instance, one finds a senior BBC executive reflecting thus on Alastair Campbell's complaint: "I've just reread Campbell's point and I am more convinced than I was before that he is on the run. Or gone bonkers. Or both." This is the wrong attitude to criticisms of a story.

Second, the BBC does not tightly control publication of its hot stories. For the very words which describe the scoop must be carefully considered. Very often the reporter's own draft has to be toned down, bits removed and saving graces inserted. In the case of Mr Gilligan, however, he broadcast the first version of his story by telephone from home without very much in the way of oversight by his seniors.

Third, building on this point, the BBC does not supervise its reporters closely enough. Perhaps because many of its staff are on freelance contracts it finds this difficult. As one of Mr Gilligan's editors told a colleague: shortcomings in Mr Gilligan's work are "in many ways a result of the loose and in some ways distant relationship he's been allowed to have with Today." The same executive proposed that in future Mr Gilligan "works substantially in the office", that his habit of usually filing from home ceases and that his proposed stories are "discussed with his editor in detail, as early as possible, face to face". Necessary disciplines indeed.

Underlying these shortfalls in editorial skills are some bigger issues. Should the BBC even be doing j'accuse-type stories as part of its everyday news output? Are they not best left to specialist programmes such as Panorama?

If you analyse newspapers, for instance, you find that the ideas for such revelations normally arise from the underlying editorial stance. Newspapers that disapproved of the invasion of Iraq will keep on coming up with scoops that support their opinion. Meanwhile, rival publications that supported the war will concentrate their investigative resources on something more congenial to their views. It is hard both to remain impartial, as the BBC is bound by its Royal Charter so to be, and at the same time undertake what might be called "fighting" or "engaged" journalism.

This leads to the most fundamental question of all, the BBC's structure. The BBC governors are charged both to lead the corporation in the way any board of directors must do, and to act as public interest watchdogs. The two tasks are incompatible. There is, however, a second weakness.

That is that the director general is both chief executive and editor-in-chief. This again is an incompatibility. No man or woman has the skills to be both the chief executive of one of the largest broadcasting companies and to be editor-in-chief of perhaps the largest editorial team in the entire world, providing numerous news services every minute of the day, in many languages to a large variety of audiences. In practice, I guess, the difficulty is resolved by delegating the editor-in-chief work and using the title as a right to intervene. But now we see that the BBC has a desperate need for a strong editor-in-chief.

Perhaps Mr Dyke could very brilliantly be that person, but if so, somebody else would have to take over his commercial responsibilities. The questions will keep coming until these structural problems are solved.