I'm not entering the fray here with words for or against Lord Hutton and his judgements. I have my feelings but they will remain private. To join the battle over the contents of the Hutton report would compromise the thing I hold most sacred as a BBC journalist: my sense of fairness. For me to use this column to attack one side in the argument while being paid by the other would be quite wrong. This is a time to repress one's natural instincts. Time and the unfolding of history will give a proper verdict on the turbulence of the past few days.
But I am not constrained in writing about what is good in the organisation I love. This last word is strong and I will explain it later. I became a journalist more than 25 years ago, entering a local paper straight from school. I was 18 years old and bursting with idealistic passion. For me, journalism was about telling uncomfortable truths and going to difficult places. It still is. I truly believed that being a reporter could offer one a chance to make a difference, even the smallest difference, in the world. If after 25 years that passion remains unbridled, it is thanks to the British Broadcasting Corporation.
I have worked for local and national newspapers in Ireland. I have written for almost all of the British national press. I also worked for another large broadcasting organisation. But arriving at Broadcasting House for my initial training 16 years ago, I felt as if I'd reached my holy mountain. The interview board a few weeks earlier had given me a taste of what to expect. Led by the formidable Jenny Abramsky (now head of BBC Radio), the board grilled me for 30 of the most intense minutes of my life. The questions were insightful, provocative, tough. I left feeling like a gibbering fool, convinced that the job of Ireland correspondent would go to an insider.
I was wrong. The board thought I'd done well. "You knew what you were talking about and we think you'll be fair," said the editor who rang with the good news. Being "fair" in Northern Ireland was more crucial than in any other part of the domestic sphere. An ill-judged phrase or any expression of bias could be disastrous. From that day to this, I have always tried to know what I am talking about. The news business being what it is - late-breaking stories, meagre information, official obstruction - I have not always succeeded to the degree I would like. But the enthusiasm for the pursuit of elusive truths remains undimmed. As for fairness, the editors for whom I am lucky to work would expect nothing less.
Let anyone who imagines a regime of laxity within the BBC's newsrooms join me in a script conference with Mike Robinson, editor of Panorama. No newspaper or magazine editor I've worked for remotely approaches Robinson's fierce forensic determination or his resolute sense of fair play. Under his editorship I've made challenging films on British policy in Zimbabwe and the role of Ariel Sharon in a massacre in Lebanon. Both were subjected to the most rigorous factual scrutiny and intellectual debate. Look around the room and you will see the faces of John Ware, the finest investigative reporter in Britain, and Jane Corbin, whose investigations into Iraqi weapons were leaps and bounds ahead of the US congressional investigations now unfolding in Washington.
Cross the road from the White City building to Television Centre and come with me into the main newsroom. There you will meet the most professional and committed group of editors, sub-editors, reporters, planners and engineers ever assembled under a single roof. Up at one end you will see Kevin Bakhurst and his team from the Ten O'Clock News. Watching their coverage of the Hutton report over the past few days was the best possible riposte to those who would seek to damn the BBC for partiality or sloppiness. The same was true right across the BBC's airwaves. What greater test of an organisation's fundamental trustworthiness than its ability to report a trauma on the scale of Hutton with such relentless impartiality?
At the other end of the room, beyond a vast bank of television screens, sit the planners from World News. Sitting in the middle is the World Assignment Editor, Malcolm Downing. He spends his days and many of his nights on the telephone to reporters in far-flung, often dangerous places. When the Baghdad correspondent has a scoop, she will call Malcolm. And when the Baghdad team members are risking their lives to get the story on air, it is Malcolm and his planners who will worry through every moment until they are safe.
Downing knows that at any moment his phone may ring with news of a disaster striking a BBC team somewhere in the world. He knows because it has happened in the past. Reporters, camera people and engineers have been killed doing their job. Like me, Malcolm has lost good friends who were willing to lay their lives on the line to get at the truth. Not all are household names. When a stringer from one of the language services is murdered by the enemies of truth, the UK press will pay little attention. But the courage of such men is not forgotten by the BBC listeners within their own communities. Nor is it forgotten by those of us honoured to work alongside them.
Many times in dangerous places I have been assailed by the gunmen and bullies who are the enemies of truth. They have denounced the BBC in terms more colourful than any I have ever heard in Britain. I have taken such abuse as part of the territory. But far more frequent have been the declarations of affection - in fact, love is the truer description - that have come from people for whom the BBC is the one defence against the culture of fear in which they live.
I remember secretly entering Burma as the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. To my delight she agreed to give the BBC her first interview. When I asked why, she described how she had listened to the BBC continuously during her imprisonment. The voice of calm authority broadcasting from Bush House had been a light in the darkness.
On the night my friend John Harrison died covering the South African transition, one of the first callers was Nelson Mandela, anxious to pay tribute to a BBC reporter who had always placed the truth before anything else. In Zimbabwe last year, I met human rights activists overwhelmingly grateful that the BBC, alone among the world's broadcasters, was consistently willing to defy the repressive press laws of Robert Mugabe.
To outline our virtues in the face of damning criticism from Lord Hutton is not special pleading. Nor is it an attempt to ignore the mistakes. Far from it. We know there are lessons to be learned. With the BBC you can be sure they will be learned. I can't quite find the proper words to describe the past few days. Exhausting, depressing, saddening. These are the words which spring immediately to mind.
But there is another feeling bubbling under the surface, a feeling whose precise enunciation eludes me at the moment. Pride isn't the proper word. For in these traumatic hours it might suggest an absence of proper humility. Yet the feeling I am attempting to describe is deep rooted and unshakeable. It is the sense of being part of something singular and inspiring. Not the out-of-control machine of tabloid fantasy but a defender of the highest human ideals. I stand by those ideals. And I stand proudly by the BBC. Always.
The writer is a BBC Special CorrespondentReuse content