What do you get for your money? The typical American might think of "Masterpiece Theatre" and high-toned pronunciation. But that's only if you've missed the spectacle of the BBC's institutional meltdown this year, which is theater of a different sort and not nearly as edifying. The plot runs as follows: The BBC has accused Tony Blair's Labour government of dishonesty in making the case for war with Iraq. The government has accused the BBC of dishonesty in making the case against the government. The anonymous source for the key BBC report--a scientist employed by the Defense Ministry--has killed himself. And a judicial inquiry into the circumstances surrounding his death is now under way in London, at the request of the government--roughly the equivalent of an independent counsel investigation.
The testimony so far has not been flattering to the BBC (or the government). Charges and countercharges of corruption fill the front pages of the papers. (Had TV cameras been allowed into the Royal Courts of Justice, where the witnesses are testifying, the BBC might have unwittingly produced and starred in a hugely popular reality TV show.) It turns out that what a captive audience gets from a media megalith with a government-enforced subsidy is exactly what a beginning student of economics would predict: The BBC may be arrogant, but it's also incompetent, not to mention surly and evasive when criticized.
THE WAR IN IRAQ has left in its wake a string of embarrassments for the BBC that have many questioning its privileged status. Throughout the war, the BBC was consistently--and correctly--accused of antiwar bias. These accusations began almost as soon as the fighting did, when the BBC described the death of two Royal Air Force crew members, after their jet was accidentally downed by a U.S. Patriot missile, as the "worst possible news for the armed forces." On March 26 (less than a week into the fighting), Paul Adams, the BBC's own defense correspondent in Qatar, fired off a memo to his bosses: "I was gobsmacked to hear, in a set of headlines today, that the coalition was suffering 'significant casualties.' This is simply NOT TRUE." He went on to ask, "Who dreamed up the line that the coalition are achieving 'small victories at a very high price?' The truth is exactly the opposite. The gains are huge and costs still relatively low. This is real warfare, however one-sided, and losses are to be expected." Outside critics were even blunter: They revived the nickname "Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation," a coinage from the first Gulf War, when BBC broadcasts from the Iraqi capital were censored by Saddam's government without viewers' being notified.
"What makes the BBC's behavior particularly heinous," noted Douglas Davis, the London correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, "is the relentless indulgence of its penchant for what might be politely termed 'moral equivalence' at a time when Britain is at war with a brutal enemy and its servicemen are dying on the battlefield." Mark Damazer, the deputy director of BBC News, did nothing to dispel that kind of criticism when he said (in a speech to Media Workers Against the War, no less) that it would be a "mistake" for BBC journalists to use the word "liberate" when referring to areas now under coalition control. Stephen Whittle, the BBC's controller of editorial policy, piled on, telling his journalists to refer to the armed forces as "British troops" and not "our" troops.
While Damazer graciously admitted that the BBC "make[s] mistakes," most of those mistakes were distinctly unfriendly towards the coalition. For example, on April 3, after U.S. troops had taken control of the Baghdad airport, Andrew Gilligan (remember that name) reported on the BBC World Service and on the BBC website, "Within the last 90 minutes I've been at the airport. There is simply no truth in the claims that American troops are surrounding it. We could drive up to it quite easily. The airport is under full Iraqi control." That was Gilligan's story, and the BBC was sticking to it--until another correspondent pointed out that Gilligan was not, in fact, at the airport, but U.S. troops quite clearly were.
Two days later, on April 5, Gilligan reported, "I'm in the center of Baghdad, and I don't see anything. But then the Americans have a history of making these premature announcements." At roughly the same time, CNN was broadcasting pictures of the 3rd Infantry driving through the center of Baghdad. By April 11, even the intrepid Gilligan could no longer maintain that the coalition was not in control of Baghdad. So instead he argued that Baghdadis were experiencing their "first days of freedom in more fear than they have ever known before"--that is, that they felt less safe than they had under Saddam. The prime minister's office shot back, "Try telling that to people put in shredders or getting their tongues cut out."
But it's unfair to single out Gilligan: His colleagues were spinning just as egregiously. For instance, on May 15, John Kampfner filed a story in which he called the April 1 rescue of POW Jessica Lynch "one of the most stunning pieces of news management ever conceived." The U.S. Special Forces troops who rescued her "knew that the Iraqi military had fled a day before they swooped on the hospital." The Pentagon, he claimed, "had been influenced by Hollywood producers of reality TV and action movies" to the extent that the troops had actually gone in firing blanks to make the rescue more dramatic on tape.
This should have struck any professional war correspondent as implausible, to say the least. As a U.S. official deadpanned to the Washington Times, the Navy SEALs who rescued Lynch "are not the type of guys who carry blanks." In fact, an investigation by NBC News found that "the so-called blanks were actually flash-bang grenades used to stun and frighten hospital workers and potential resistance." Hospital workers also told NBC that the Iraqi military had used the basement of the hospital as a headquarters, and that top brass had left only six hours before the raid. And while there was no fighting inside the hospital, there was a firefight between soldiers guarding the hospital perimeter and Iraqi paramilitaries.
Of course, BBC spin usually comes in more subtle forms. The use of scare quotes on the BBC website, for example, often betrays a remarkable contempt for the coalition. When Uday and Qusay Hussein were killed by U.S. troops last month, the website blared, "Saddam sons 'dead'" and "Iraq 'deaths' will have huge effect." The next day, having come to terms with the fact of these deaths, the BBC moved on to questioning their value: "U.S. celebrates 'good' Iraq news." And, as Christopher Hitchens noted in a perceptive Slate essay, you can no longer depend on BBC journalists even for proper pronunciation. The Beeb's announcers habitually mangle Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz's last name (pronounced exactly as it looks) to make it more Jewish-sounding: Vulfervitz.
Hitchens isn't the only one who has noticed something not quite kosher in the BBC's treatment of Jews. The Israeli government, responding to a persistent demonization which it says "verges on the anti-Semitic"--including a documentary which erroneously claimed that the Israeli army uses nerve gas on the Palestinians--recently announced that it would no longer cooperate with the BBC in any way. Israel does not impose similar sanctions on any other news organization.
In the midst of all this controversy, Greg Dyke, the director-general of the BBC, took time to, yes, criticize the American media. "Personally, I was shocked while in the United States by how unquestioning the broadcast news media was during this war," he told a University of London audience. The fragmented American television industry, he said, has made the White House and the Pentagon "all-powerful with no news operation strong enough or brave enough to stand up against it." What a contrast to the bravery of the BBC! But as sometime BBC commentator Janet Daley wrote in the Telegraph, "BBC staff often say proudly that it is their responsibility to oppose whatever government is in power. Well, actually, it isn't. . . . Examination and analysis are the business of tax-funded journalism. Opposition is the business of mandated politicians."
BUT ALL OF THE BBC's chutzpah, all of its spinning, all of its slant are small beer by comparison with the scandal currently engulfing the Corporation. And for that, we come back to Andrew Gilligan. Last September, the Blair government published a 50-page dossier setting out the case for regime change in Iraq. Among the more striking claims was that some Iraqi weapons of mass destruction could be launched within 45 minutes of an order to do so. In the aftermath of the war, it now appears that this claim was mistaken. But the BBC has alleged something more sinister than an innocent mistake.
On May 29 of this year, Andrew Gilligan reported on BBC Radio 4's "Today" program that "a British official who was involved in the preparation of the dossier" told him the 45-minute claim "was included in the dossier against our wishes" at the behest of the prime minister's office, in order to make the dossier "sexier." Gilligan quoted his source as saying that, "Most people in intelligence were unhappy with the dossier because it didn't reflect the considered view they were putting forward." The government was not asked for a comment before the report ran. Three days later, in an article in the Mail on Sunday, Gilligan named Alastair Campbell, Blair's director of communications (and never one of the more popular people in London) as the official who ordered the dossier "sexed-up."
Gilligan's report, unsurprisingly, caused a splash, prompting furious denials from the government and the intelligence agencies, the launch of an investigation by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, and a frenzied hunt for the mole. The accusation was repeated numerous times in the subsequent weeks, with other BBC journalists citing Gilligan's "intelligence source." Gilligan was summoned to testify before the Foreign Affairs Committee on June 19. In that testimony, he gave a few details of his May 22 lunch with his source, whom he described as "one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up the dossier." On June 25, Campbell testified before the committee. He denied Gilligan's claims and demanded an apology from the BBC.
On June 30, Dr. David Kelly--a microbiologist, expert in chemical and biological warfare, former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, and adviser to the British Defense Ministry and Foreign Office--read the transcript of Gilligan's testimony. He had lunched with Andrew Gilligan on May 22, and he recognized parts of their conversation in Gilligan's testimony. But other details perplexed him. He wrote a memo to his line manager at the Ministry of Defense, saying that he had met with Gilligan to discuss his experiences in Iraq, not the government's dossier. He "did not even consider" that he could have been Gilligan's source until a colleague pointed out that some of the things Gilligan's source told him sounded like things Kelly regularly said. But, Kelly's memo continued, "the description of that meeting in small part matches my interaction with him, especially my personal evaluation of Iraq's capability, but the overall character is quite different. I can only conclude one of three things. Gilligan has considerably embellished my meeting with him; he has met other individuals who truly were intimately associated with the dossier; or he has assembled comments from both multiple direct and indirect sources for his articles."
Kelly was summoned for meetings with his line manager and the Ministry of Defense's personnel director on July 4 and 7. He gave them his account of what had been discussed at his lunch with Gilligan, and he was told that he had broken Civil Service rules by having an unauthorized meeting with a journalist, but that he would not be formally disciplined. At the second meeting, he was told that a statement would be released announcing that a civil servant had met with Gilligan. Although he would not be named in the statement, Kelly was warned that his name might come out, as there were so few specialists in his field.
Meanwhile, the BBC's Board of Governors released a statement standing behind Gilligan's report. It noted that, although its producers' guidelines "say that the BBC should be reluctant to broadcast stories based on a single source, and warn about the dangers of using anonymous sources, they clearly allow for this to be done in exceptional circumstances. Stories based on senior intelligence sources are a case in point." The statement also defended the BBC's overall coverage of the war, calling it "entirely impartial," and demanding that Campbell withdraw allegations of bias.
On July 7, the same day that Dr. Kelly had his second meeting with his supervisors, the Foreign Affairs Committee cleared Blair spokesman Alastair Campbell of "sexing-up" the dossier, although it found that the 45-minute claim was given undue prominence. The next day, Geoff Hoon, the defense minister, wrote to Gavyn Davies, the BBC chairman, enclosing a copy of the statement that his office would release later in the day, saying that a civil servant had come forward as Gilligan's source. Hoon offered to tell Davies the name on the condition that Davies agree in advance to confirm or deny whether the named civil servant was, indeed, Gilligan's source. Davies refused the offer.
The Defense Ministry released the statement, contradicting the BBC Board's claim that it had relied on "senior intelligence sources" in accusing the government. Gilligan's source, said the ministry statement, was "an expert on WMD who has advised ministers on WMD and whose contribution to the Dossier of September 2002 was to contribute towards drafts of historical accounts of UN inspections. He is not 'one of the senior officials in charge of drawing up the dossier.' He is not a member of the Intelligence Services or the Defence Intelligence Staff." The statement also noted that the civil servant in question had explained to Gilligan that "he was not involved in the process of drawing up the intelligence parts of the Dossier."
The BBC then issued a statement claiming that the "description of the individual contained in the [Ministry of Defense] statement does not match Mr. Gilligan's source in some important ways. . . . Mr. Gilligan's source does not work in the Ministry of Defense."
Based on the information in the Defense Ministry's statement, a number of reporters came up with Dr. Kelly's name, and the ministry confirmed that he was the one who had come forward. This was widely reported in the newspapers on July 10. The same day, Davies wrote to Hoon, "The BBC will not be making any more comments about, or responding to any claims concerning the identity of Andrew Gilligan's source."
Both the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Intelligence and Security Committee requested that Dr. Kelly testify before them. On July 15, he testified before the Foreign Affairs Committee. He told them that his involvement in the dossier was limited to writing a historical account of U.N. inspections in Iraq and of Iraq's pattern of concealment and deception. Because he had not, to the best of his recollection, said many of the things that Gilligan attributed to his source, Kelly told the committee that he did not believe he was the main source for Gilligan's story. The next day, he testified in a closed session before the Intelligence and Security Committee.
On July 17, Gilligan was recalled to give testimony before a closed session of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Following the testimony, committee chairman Donald Anderson publicly called Gilligan "an unsatisfactory witness." Later, the committee would agree to publish Gilligan's testimony, only to reverse that decision after Gavyn Davies, the BBC chairman, argued that publication might adversely affect Gilligan's health (Gilligan was "stressed," according to Davies). But the truth will out, and the transcript was soon leaked to the Guardian (the committee finally got around to releasing it officially on August 12).
The transcript is not pretty. Gilligan bobs and weaves to evade responsibility, saying things like, "I have never said in respect of the insertion of the 45-minute claim that Mr. Campbell inserted it. I simply quoted the words of my source." The displeasure with Gilligan was bipartisan, with Tory MP John Stanley asking for a "very full and frank apology to this committee for having, in my view, grievously misled this committee," and Labour MP Eric Illsley going even further: "You have misled the whole world, let alone this committee."
Later that same day, David Kelly went for a walk in the woods near his Oxfordshire home and slit his left wrist. He was found dead the following morning.
The next day, the government announced that an investigation into the affair would be conducted by Lord Hutton, one of Britain's most senior and respected judges. The BBC finally acknowledged on July 20 that Dr. Kelly had been Gilligan's source, adding, "The BBC believes we accurately interpreted and reported the factual information obtained by us during interviews with Dr. Kelly."
With the Hutton inquiry now ongoing, there are at least three major questions facing the BBC. First, and most obviously, did Kelly say what Gilligan claims he said? The BBC put out word that Kelly had similar conversations with two other BBC journalists, Gavin Hewitt and Susan Watts. But the reports filed by Hewitt and Watts are much closer to what the Foreign Affairs Committee eventually concluded--that the prime minister's office was guilty, at worst, of overemphasizing certain intelligence--than they are to Gilligan's claim that intelligence was included in the dossier "against [the] wishes" of the intelligence agencies.
In the most dramatic testimony so far, Susan Watts last Wednesday told the Hutton inquiry that Dr. Kelly "certainly did not say [to her] the 45-minutes claim was inserted by Alastair Campbell or by anyone else in government." More disturbingly, she told the inquiry that she had hired her own attorney because she "felt under some considerable pressure from the BBC" to "help corroborate Andrew Gilligan's allegations." She continued, "I felt the BBC was trying to mold my stories so they reached the same conclusions [as Gilligan] . . . which I felt was misguided and false."
Second, why was Kelly persistently misidentified? Gilligan called him a "British official who was involved in the preparation of the dossier," which was misleading, as Kelly was not involved in the preparation of that part of the dossier that Gilligan went on to discuss. Other BBC journalists then referred to Kelly as an "intelligence source," which he was not, and the BBC Board of Governors called him a "senior intelligence source," which he emphatically was not. The BBC then issued a bald-faced lie when it claimed that the Defense Ministry's description of Kelly did not match Gilligan's source and that Gilligan's source did not work at the Ministry.
Finally, even if Gilligan did correctly report Kelly's claims, why was such an explosive story run based on a single, incorrectly identified, anonymous source, without giving the government a chance to comment? Would a story with such flimsy sourcing have seen the light of day had it not so conveniently buttressed the BBC's ideological biases?
Since Kelly's death, the BBC's approach has been to avoid answering such questions by going on the offensive against its critics. Most disgracefully, John Kampfner--the same BBC reporter who filed the bogus story about Jessica Lynch's rescuers shooting blanks--took to the New Statesman to hint that Kelly may not have committed suicide. (Another article in the same issue of the same magazine speculates on who might have wanted Kelly dead.) Meanwhile, BBC chairman Gavyn Davies penned an op-ed for the Telegraph arguing that "it would have been profoundly wrong for BBC journalists to have suppressed their stories" and lauding his organization for upholding "its traditional attachment to impartiality and the truth under almost intolerable pressures" during and after the war.
Of course, not everyone is certain that the BBC has ever had an "attachment to impartiality and the truth" (the Ministry of Truth in "1984" was partly inspired by George Orwell's wartime experiences working for the BBC). But even many who were previously inclined to show deference to the BBC are now losing that faith: A recent poll found that public confidence in the BBC has fallen by a third in the last nine months, and another poll found that 51 percent of Britons trust TV and radio news less now than they did a year ago. The BBC's current 10-year charter expires at the end of 2006, and a number of MPs are hinting that the terms of the charter will be significantly revised. A few radicals have even raised the idea of full privatization.
In April, columnist Barbara Amiel joked in the Telegraph that "About the only thing in Saddam's favor was that you could get the death penalty for listening to the BBC." Ironically, it just might be the BBC's desire to prevent the death of Saddam's regime that results in the mighty Corporation's own downfall.
Josh Chafetz is a graduate student in politics at Merton College, Oxford, and the co-editor of oxblog.blogspot.com.