The BBC has a lot to answer for. Rosie Millard’s new look for a start, and then there’s those interminable trails for upcoming features and events that take up so much time on radio and television that it must be difficult to schedule any actual programmes between them. But just how culpable is the corporation over its behaviour in the Dr David Kelly affair? If I can add my £116-worth to the debate as a licence holder, “considerably” is the word that springs to mind.
In this space a month ago I observed that the BBC was behind on points and – please forgive me for quoting myself – “trying to get off the ropes (this may be difficult, unless Andrew Gilligan’s single anonymous source arrives in his corner)”. Subsequently Dr Kelly emerged not in Gilligan’s corner, but in the centre of the ring to deny that he could have been that single source. His tragic death followed soon afterwards.
Where does that and the millions of spoken and written words addressing the issue leave the Beeb? With a nose still bloodied, that’s where. Despite the Government’s undoubted roughing up of its opponent in the clinches, at the time of writing any experienced referee would seriously be contemplating stopping the fight. (Lord Hutton may, of course, have other ideas when he arrives ringside.) No matter how the BBC flails, it cannot dodge a number of incontrovertible facts: 1. On the strength of that one anonymous source, Gilligan claimed on the Today programme, without seeking official corroboration, denial or comment, that the Government intelligence reports had been “sexed up”.
2. The BBC later wrongly described Dr Kelly as “an intelligence source”, which he was not. He therefore had no personal knowledge to back up the suggestion that Alastair Campbell inserted the claim that Saddam could launch weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes (it has since emerged that he did not). But once again, no check calls were made.
3. Although refusing to divulge the name of his source, Gilligan dropped a handful of clues when giving evidence to the Select Committee, and Richard Sambrook, head of BBC News, sprinkled more in a letter to Alastair Campbell. A good detective could have pieced them together and been on Dr Kelly’s doorstep within – if not 45 minutes – 24 hours.
I could continue over this well trodden ground, but will restrict myself to one further example of the BBC’s continuing bull-headed and insensitive conduct. When after Dr Kelly’s death a Mail on Sunday reporter was caught on microphone shouting at the Prime Minister, “Do you have blood on your hands?” – now there’s a handsome advertisement for the probity of the press – Radio 5 Live used the clip to trail an upcoming edition of Broadcasting House. Tacky or what? Three years ago I spent a couple of hours talking with Alastair Campbell about spin and its ills. He observed that the development of 24-hour media meant that broadcasters now have the absolute monopoly on immediacy. Yet for some peculiar reason, broadcasters were still the lesser media partners, he thought – “The press is still setting their agenda, which is bizarre and odd and shows a terrible lack of self-confidence in the way they work.”
This may be the nub of the corporation’s problem. Tired of playing second fiddle to newspapers in breaking big stories, it has developed a fresh news philosophy that dictates it must produce major exclusives that will leave the press scampering to catch up.
We read that Rod Liddle, when editor of Today, wanted the programme to make headlines, rather than chase them, and the news agenda favoured by his replacement, Kevin Marsh, is of heavyweight investigations with a political base.
There is also an increasing frequency for radio news bulletins to lead with stories that emerge from on-air interviews – the phrase “â€¦told this programme” is becoming irritatingly familiar.
With this predilection the BBC is losing the news plot. It is not to be compared with, nor should it feel it necessary to compete against, the national press. It is a public service broadcaster with a responsibility to present balanced analysis and debate, not a foot-in-the-door hustler trying to get up the front path ahead of the News of the World.
Lord Black, writing in his own Daily Telegraph, has pointed out that there is “not the slightest shred of evidence that the Prime Minister deliberately misled the country” – and Conrad is not exactly known for his unwavering support of new Labour. And Andreas Whittam Smith, the first editor of The Independent, has written from personal experience in that newspaper that sources must be protected at all times – even, in his view, after they are dead.
I do not go so far as to share Lord Black’s opinion that the BBC had become “a rogue and putschist organisation” (the spellcheck in my computer is still sulking at “putschist”). But I wouldn’t be surprised if the frown that occasionally creases the forehead of Andrew Marr, a BBC employee who has behaved properly right from the start of the story, is caused by disapproval of the inept performance of those around him.
About Rosie Millard: the BBC TV arts correspondent is a good reporter, so why has she, or some producer anxious to sex up her pieces to camera, decided she will be more effective with Monroe-blonde hair and clothes requiring dark glasses to view if one is not to be blinded? The frock she wore to cover one film premiere reminded me of the phrase Hugh Cudlipp once used to describe a particularly garish Daily Mirror front page – “a multicoloured kaleidoscopic upchuck”.
About those radio and TV trailers: the worst are those on Radio 5 Live – I know that’s what the bloody station is called, thank you very much. And while I’m about it, any station that assigns to the Jeffrey Archer prison release story a reporter who isn’t quite sure that Rupert Brooke not only lived at the Old Vicarage, Grantchester, but wrote a poem of that name and another (The Soldier) that begins, “If I should die, think only this of meâ€¦” is urgently in need of resuscitation.
Trophy wives, husbands, boyfriends and girlfriends I know about, but trophy sackings? Interviewed in, of all publications, The Observer Food Monthly, former William Hague media guru and sometime newspaper editor Amanda Platell was asked by Anthony Quinn if she had a fellow feeling for the beleaguered Alastair Campbell? “God, no. I sacked him from the Daily Mirror when he was political editor,” replied Ms Platell, ignoring the fact that at the time she was not a Daily Mirror editorial executive – never was – but a David Montgomery puppet with no unilateral power to sack anyone of Campbell’s stature.
Still, I can understand that she would want to be remembered for something.