Lord Hutton's narrative of the events which led to Dr Kelly's suicide essentially confines itself to the BBC. In Lord Hutton's mind, the Government's role was marginal. The story starts with Andrew Gilligan, the Today reporter making unfounded allegations of government duplicity. Mr Gilligan removes the sting in later broadcasts the same day, but what was said couldn't be unsaid. As newspapers know, these things happen, for the media in its investigative mode does not remotely command the resources of the state. It cannot question whom it chooses, it cannot lock people up while enquiries are pursued, it cannot inflict penalties other than embarrassment or loss of reputation. As a result , I'm afraid, the media does make a lot of mistakes.
If the state with all its powers can perpetrate substantial miscarriages of justice, as it does from time to time, how much more likely it is that broadcasters and newspapers can make investigative blunders. Yet, as Lord Hutton acknowledges, "the communication by the media of information (including information obtained by investigative reporters) on matters of public interest and importance is a vital part of life in a democratic society." Therefore what is critically important is how the media handles any subsequent complaints or denials. That is why there has to be a good complaints system. The swift rectification of mistakes is also a public duty.
In this regard, the BBC failed completely. Once Gavyn Davies, the chairman, came to understand that, his resignation became inevitable. For the BBC has a higher status than mere newspapers. It has its duties spelled out in a Royal Charter, it has a worldwide reputation. And to discharge its tasks it has enormous editorial teams plus ranks upon ranks of editorial executives, all financed by the licence fee. Yet still it cannot efficiently set the record straight when required. This is the second element in Lord Hutton's narrative.
Indeed it is easy to see that had the BBC quickly dealt with the matter, then the hue and cry would have wound down. There would have been no inquiry by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons; Dr Kelly would never have felt compelled to own up to meeting Mr Gilligan; the Prime Minister and his colleagues would not have had to consider a "naming" strategy; and finally, Dr Kelly would not have gone for the walk from which he was not to return.
This is one reason, I think, why Lord Hutton strongly criticises the BBC while finding the Government more or less blameless. Lord Hutton's unstated conclusion is that if anybody brought about Dr Kelly's suicide, it was the BBC.
Thus Lord Hutton describes as defective an editorial system which permitted Mr Gilligan to broadcast his report at 6.07am without editors having seen a script of what he was going to say and without having considered whether it should be approved. Then, when the Government complained, the BBC failed to investigate what, if anything, might have gone wrong.
This was astoundingly naive. When the prime minister of the day complains, you have to sit up. The BBC did not even properly check Mr Gilligan's notes of his interview with Dr Kelly. Moreover as the complaint moved up the BBC's hierarchy, the response was increasingly woolly. The lower levels of the chain of command did not communicate effectively with the upper reaches so that finally the board of governors came to conclusions without full knowledge of the facts.
The governors should have recognised more fully than they did, Lord Hutton writes, that their duty to protect the independence of the BBC was not incompatible with giving proper consideration to whether there was validity in the government's complaints. I think this shows how perversely a conflict of interest can work out. Because the chairman was often accused of being a Blair/Brown crony, he defended the BBC's independence, come what may, without looking to see if he had selected the right grounds.
Moreover the governors' view that it was not for them to investigate whether the allegations reported were themselves accurate was, in Lord Hutton's judgment, wrong. The governors themselves should have made more detailed investigations into the extent to which Mr Gilligan's notes supported his report. If they had done this they would probably have discovered that the notes did not support the allegation that the government knew that the "45 minutes" claim was probably wrong, and the governors should then have questioned whether it was right for the BBC to maintain that it was in the public interest to broadcast that allegation in Mr Gilligan's report and to rely on Mr Gilligan's assurances that his report was accurate.
This is devastating criticism. It has been evident since Lord Hutton's examination of BBC witnesses that something along these lines would have to be said. I have written it and so have others. But the way in which Lord Hutton rebukes the corporation, from the evidence, with his considerable authority, means that a reform of editorial structures and their relationship with the board of governors cannot be denied.
Some things can be done quickly. Greg Dyke, the director general, should give up his additional task as editor-in-chief. The excellent entertainment industry executive that Mr Dyke undoubtedly is cannot also be expected to carry responsibilities akin to those of a national newspaper editor.
Indeed the single essential reform that the corporation should now make is to employ a former national newspaper editor (not me, I'm too old!) as its editor-in-chief with a brief to reform the system of editorial control. Everyday I notice mistakes that such an editor-in-chief would quickly root out. Last night it was a junior reporter on News 24 adding her own jejune opinions to her news report. No thanks.
Lord Hutton's narrative goes one stage further in implicating the BBC. This is the matter of the e-mail sent by Mr Gilligan to members of the Foreign Affairs Committee just before they were due to question Dr Kelly. Mr Gilligan suggested that Dr Kelly was the source for the reports by Newsnight's reporter, Susan Watts. This allowed the Committee to ambush Dr Kelly and drive him into falsely denying the extent of his conversations with Ms Watts. That these denials might be humiliatingly unpicked may well have become a concern for Dr Kelly.
In his evidence Mr Gilligan acknowledged that it had been quite wrong for him to have sent the e-mail and he apologised for doing so. So here is another question for a new editor-in-chief. Was Mr Gilligan's action part of the BBC culture or an aberrant act by a man under great strain?
So ends the Hutton story. The BBC has been severely mauled. The Government escapes with scarcely a scratch. Back then to the main point. Were British troops sent to their deaths in Iraq on the basis of erroneous intelligence assessments? Why was the intelligence so unreliable? Whose fault was that? Who should pay the price other than the soldiers in the field?
Lord Hutton was rightly silent on these questions. But they must be answered. Many of us won't rest until they are.Reuse content