Saturday, July 26, 2003
Pointing the Finger - 25th July 2003, 12:04

Some of our American colleagues in the blogosphere, like Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Reynolds, have viewed the current clash between the BBC and the Blair administration, as a replay of the New York Times, with the values of journalistic integrity undermined by "reporters" furthering an ideological or a political agenda. Whereas, in Britain, the evidence gathered so far, indicates that the battle is one of factions in New Labour's 'big tent'. What is so striking about the methods of spin and manipulation of the facts illustrated over the last few days is how they were considered to be useful tools by New Labour members, whether they inhabited No. 10 or, like Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke, were parachuted into the management and regulatory structure of the BBC. Both sides used these methods without any moral compunction and now find themselves speared by the consequences. One wonders if this battle indicates a division in New Labour itself, between the Blairites and the more traditionalist members of the project.

Tessa Jowell has stated that the 'independent' Hutton inquiry will consider whether the BBC has breached its regulatory procedures and editorial guidelines. If it is independent, why are ministers presuming to set its remit? Jowell also told the BBC's World at One:

"It is a statement of the obvious to say I will take very seriously the recommendations in the Hutton inquiry - particularly those recommendations that may bear, in any way, on the BBC or any other broadcaster or any other aspect of the media," Ms Jowell told BBC Radio 4's World at One.

In the early years of the Blair administration, we saw New Labour attempt to suborn independent institutions through patronage and personal networks, maintaining the guise of independence, yet influencing political outcomes through trusted appointees. This strategy was rolled out in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the BBC and the quangocracy. The actions of the BBC represents this strategy's greatest failure. However, who would you trust least to institute any reforms of the broadcasting media? That is why I find Jowell's assertion that any 'recommendations' may be implemented across the independent and public sectors to be rather disturbing, given this government's record of vetoing recommendations disadvantageous to its interests. (When will the rules on referenda become law?)

Peter Oborne of the Spectator has examined some of the evidence surrounding Kelly's evidence and concludes that the government hung him out to dry. His major piece of evidence is an article by Patrick Wintour, the Guardian's defence correspondent, with close links to No. 10. Looking at this mess from the outside, one is given to think that we will never know the ins and outs of what was said or done by the individual players. However, people are aware of the past tactics employed by this government and assertions that Blair authorised the leaking of information are all too credible. No doubt, their defence will be that noone named Kelly, whilst wriggling on their hook. However,

First they issued enough information to make it possible for any resourceful and well-connected journalist to narrow down the list of suspects. Then press officers were given instructions that, if a journalist came up with the correct name, they were to confirm whether it was the right one or not. On 9 July the Times presented 20 names to the MoD before coming up with the answer.

Nor will we know how accurate was the information Kelly gave to the Foreign Affairs Committee until the final report from Hutton is published. The allegations of bullying and threats cannot be proved one way or the other. Whilst possible rumour, such actions were not aired or recorded and only become an unproven pat to fling at this government's reputation. More interesting is the allegation that Kelly was deprived of the support usually assured to civil servants before they are grilled by the Committee. This should be investigated by Hutton's committee.

It should also ask whether Dr Kelly was afforded the usual courtesies given to officials when grilled by MPs. They are usually briefed in advance about the content and order of questions, as well as the identity of the questioner. It may be the case that Dr Kelly, who was accompanied to the committee by MoD security men but otherwise left to his own devices, was not protected in the usual way.

Those who give evidence to Commons committees are customarily sent transcripts of their evidence within 48 hours. These transcripts are always accompanied by heavy warnings about accurate testimony and the need to correct errors.

Both the BBC and the Blair administration employed the methods of manipulation and bias to further their political goals and both were descendants of the political changes in the Left under Thatcher. Now a man has died, because of their unsurprising and avowedly collectivist view of life: that the end justifies the means, and that the reputation of one man has less value that their ideas. It is their similarities rather than their differences that appalls me.


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