Will Wyatt: The bruises will heal. But will the real BBC stand up?

Hutton will expose the BBC's arrogance and sloppiness. How it responds is crucial
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The Independent Online

The BBC has had a good run for nearly a decade. As Greg Dyke and his team knock the sand out of their shoes or put away the skis after the holiday, they have some more pleasing audience figures to contemplate. The digital television channels BBC3 and BBC4 have stuttered into life, and digital radio has raced off the starting blocks. BBC1 is the most watched channel for the third year in a row and is looking in good shape. BBC radio remains buoyant, with Radio 2 the market leader and Radio 3 creeping up a little.

But BBC executives are only too aware that 2004 will be a big and dangerous year for the corporation. Over everything looms the review of the BBC's charter. Before coming to grips with that, the BBC and the Government face the Hutton report. One senses that the corporation's self-confidence is on hold until the worst has been seen and responded to.

The cheery morale that Greg Dyke brought to the BBC was knocked by the mighty row and revelations about the corporation's reporting of Dr Kelly. The BBC appeared to be right about some big things - breaking important stories, defending its independence and refusing to kow-tow. Yet it also revealed its old arrogance, as well as a worrying carelessness with detail and a less than adequate managerial grip.

Wisely, the corporation has moved to improve its editorial processes ahead of Lord Hutton producing his report. Even at the inquiry the director of news admitted that "any report which sets out a set of serious allegations should be carefully scripted in advance", as Andrew Gilligan's initial report had not been. No doubt guidelines will be changed here and elsewhere. The red rag that inflamed the mad bull of Alastair Campbell was Gilligan's article in The Mail on Sunday, naming Campbell as the person who "sexed up" the dossier on weapons of mass destruction. Gilligan, as do most such BBC journalists, derived his authority from the letters "BBC", and what he wrote was visited on his employer.

Thus, last month, the BBC announced a ban on its journalists writing newspaper articles "on current affairs or other contentious issues". The rule had always been that the individual journalist's programme editor should approve copy before it went to print. For whatever reason this was no longer an effective protection.

No heads have rolled at the BBC before publication of the Hutton report, but one has been anointed. The governors appointed Mark Byford as deputy director-general with additional responsibilities for editorial compliance and a beefed-up complaints operation. Greg Dyke had to admit to the Hutton inquiry that had Campbell gone through the formal complaints procedure it could have taken months. This is not good enough. Any complainant - and let us assume a fast track for the Government's director of communications - has a right to expect speedier attention from the BBC's governors. Byford's role includes the pre- and post-broadcast editorial procedures. Expect more rigorous checks and swifter and more analytical post-mortems in future. Oh that he had been in position this time last year.

With these moves made, the BBC has to a degree policed itself. It must hope now that Lord Hutton is sparing about the remaining vulnerable areas. In rightly defending itself against the improper barrage of complaint that Campbell laid down, the BBC failed to conduct a sufficiently forensic investigation into the detail of Gilligan's accusations. The result was the corporation left blushing as the Hutton inquiry flushed out compromising documents that had failed to surface in its own investigations.

Above all, the governors were wound up by the management to defend the BBC's independence before there was clarity about the strengths and weaknesses of the corporation's case. They were not well served, and when subsequent revelations cast doubt on the confidence in the Today programme's journalism, the governors were badly compromised.

For the BBC that is just January. There follows the real business of making the case for a renewed charter. All parties are adamant the Kelly affair should have no bearing on this wider debate. That could depend on who is left with what sort of bruises.

Meanwhile the Depart- ment of Culture, Media and Sport is conducting a review of the BBC's online services and will begin reviewing the digital broadcast services. The new industry-wide regulator Ofcom is up, running and carrying out a "far-reaching", 12-month review of public service broadcasting, which will feed into the charter work. Ofcom promises that its review will be "rooted in responses from viewers themselves". So, as the Secretary of State, Tessa Jowell, has launched a public consultation, "Your BBC, Your Say", and the BBC is to stimulate its own dialogue with its audience, there will be scarcely an adult in the land not pestered for thoughts on the future of the Beeb.

My instinct is that we should have heard some time ago from the BBC as to what it has been put on earth to do and how that flows through into all its services. This is now expected in March, but an earlier thought-through account of public service broadcasting from the BBC would have forced others to respond to its agenda. As it is, too much of the play has been in the BBC's half, its commercial rivals and some implacable enemies hoofing the ball into the goalmouth to keep the corporation on the defensive.

The BBC has a great case to make and as the old certainties crumble all around, it is more needed than ever. Encouragingly, Ms Jowell says she wants to retain a "strong and independent" BBC. But there are worrying signs. Too many Tories are reverting to their Neanderthal instincts and demanding the abolition of the licence fee. The mischievous David Elstein has been commissioned to look into the matter. Too many who should be friends of the BBC on the left are muttering about "cutting it down to size", chuntering about the Kelly affair and news standards.

Others who should be friends, among them milords Bragg and Puttnam, apparently embrace the disingenuous scheme to top-slice the licence fee and dole out the proceeds to commercial broadcasters in order to encourage them to do what they are obliged to do already. Three cheers, then, for Lord McNally, who called for supporters of the BBC to argue the case for what it has given and does give to the quality of life. The BBC will, I'm sure, underline this with its own programmes. It will rise, as always, to the events of the year such as the 60th anniversary of D-Day and Euro 2004.

I hope it does so also with its marketing and promotion. This is expertly done but too often seems to speak and purpose not. It prioritises so ruthlessly that it fails to tell us of the range of programmes on offer. It tells us too rarely of the things that make the BBC different, and thus worth paying a licence fee for. It is at odds with the values one expects of the BBC. Christmas on BBC2 was promoted by the theme of "Put yourself first this Christmas", to scenes of a woman crossing out names and writing "Me" on Christmas presents. It may be a joke, but it grates, especially from an organisation one of whose core values is: "We respect each other ..." Leave selfishness and mean-spiritedness to other channels. It is what the BBC is a bulwark against.

Will Wyatt was the BBC's chief executive broadcasting from 1996 to 1999, and is the author of 'The Fun Factory - A Life in the BBC', published by Aurum