The Magazine

The Wreck of the BBC

From the February 16, 2004 issue: How the Mighty Have Fallen

Feb 16, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 22 • By GERARD BAKER
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FOR THE LAST WEEK, much of Britain has borne witness to an outpouring of grief the like of which has not been seen since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. When Baron Hutton of Bresagh, knight of the realm, Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, a hitherto rather inconspicuous retired member of the British supreme court, delivered his much anticipated report at the end of January on the death of Dr. David Kelly, a British government weapons expert, a collective howl of anguish went up from the well-upholstered parts of the media establishment.

Lord Hutton concluded that Tony Blair, the British prime minister, was not guilty of lying about the threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction when he made the case for war more than a year ago. Nor had he or his government "sexed up," in the immortal phrase, intelligence information about the nature of the Iraq WMD threat. The prime minister had been accused of both in a notorious report by the British Broadcasting Corporation that aired in late May 2003.

Nor, for good measure, declared Lord Hutton, had Blair improperly "outed" Dr. Kelly, the previously anonymous source for the report. Kelly's exposure led more or less directly to the scientist's suicide in July.

By contrast, Hutton's report found the BBC profoundly guilty. The original story by its reporter, Andrew Gilligan, that the government had deliberately inserted a false claim into a published document concerning Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, was unfounded. Worse, the BBC had failed to ensure proper editorial procedures to prevent such an erroneous report from being broadcast. Then, without having properly checked the story, the BBC's management refused to back down from the report even though some of its own editorial staff were quietly expressing concern about its reliability.

Within hours of the publication of the Hutton findings, which amounted to a forensic flagellation of the entire editorial processes of the world's largest news organization, the two top figures at the BBC, its chairman and director general, resigned--one falling honorably on his sword, the other forced out by the board of governors.

Then, like a great keening at a funeral procession, the wailing began.

Grand public figures rose up as one to decry the verdict. Media panjandrums took to the airwaves and the newspapers to express outrage and intone gravely that Lord Hutton's report marked the beginning of the end of the right of free expression in Britain. One claimed to have felt physically sick at what the report would do for press freedom. A prominent news anchor for another TV network said he could not remember feeling more depressed. "There but for the grace of God go all of us," he wept.

Greg Dyke, the outgoing BBC director general, gone but anxious not to be forgotten, rounded on the judge and the government and said the judgment was a disgrace.

BBC staff coughed up five pounds a head to take out a full page ad in a national newspaper, insisting (the courageous jut of their jaw almost discernible through the newsprint) that they would do their best not to be deterred from bringing the public the truth.

The ranks of the stricken were not confined to the emoting British elite, at least if the BBC is to be believed. Its New York correspondent reported that he was overwhelmed at the outpouring of sympathy he had found on the streets of Manhattan.

"'Good luck,' said a colleague from a friendly U.S. network, squeezing my arm with a look of pity and concern in her eyes." This lonely but brave reporter went on to add, with the pure objectivity and balance for which the BBC is so renowned: "Arch skeptics here see it as just another victory for the ideology that drives the war on terror." He presumably meant to insert a hyphen before the word "skeptics," though the omission perhaps gave the statement its truer meaning.

The Hutton Report was, to read the British media, the Night of the Long Knives, the bonfire of the vanities, and the Cultural Revolution all rolled into one hideous assault on cherished press liberty.

If you live in the fantasy world of self-adulation and preening pomposity of high-powered liberal journalists, I suppose the aftermath of the Hutton Report might seem like that. But for those who have to toil in the less sensational world of reality, the unassuming 72-year-old peer may just have done the world one of the greatest services in the history of journalism and public broadcasting.

For Lord Hutton has exposed, from the pinnacle of independent judicial authority, the fatal flaws at the heart of the world's largest broadcaster. His report has confirmed what critics have argued for years: that the BBC, once one of the cultural treasures of the English-speaking world, has lost its way.