Whatever the conclusions of Lord Hutton’s report on Dr David Kelly and the dossier row, and whichever heads or deputy heads roll as a result of his findings, I think there’s one particular person who should be singled out for praise right now.
The BBC’s director of news, Richard Sambrook, has shown extraordinary courage and honour under fire. Ever since the Today programme and Newsnight first broadcast the allegation from “a senior official” that No 10 had “sexed up” an intelligence dossier in order to exaggerate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein and improve the case for war, the BBC has been under withering attack from the Government and, in particular, from Alastair Campbell.
In truth I can’t think of a single story where the entire weight of Government has been brought to bear in such a concerted fashion in an effort to destroy the credibility of a BBC story.
Given the intense pressure and the rather high career stakes involved, I think Sambrook deserves a medal for steering his way through a political and ethical minefield.
Sambrook – who I don’t know personally – is in charge of all the BBC’s TV, radio and online journalists and has been the BBC’s spokesperson throughout this row.
Director general Greg Dyke and the chairman of the BBC Governors, Gavyn Davies, may have had many political considerations when they decided to fight this particular battle with the Government to the bitter end, but Sambrook’s first priority is to protect the reputation of the BBC’s journalism and I think he has done this admirably.
Firstly, he protected the source even when that source was “outed” by the Government. He only agreed to confirm it was Dr David Kelly after Kelly had, sadly, taken his own life and then only with the permission of Dr Kelly’s family.
Secondly, he stood by his reporters, Andrew Gilligan on Today and Susan Watts on Newsnight. Having carefully read transcripts of both their reports and given that both reporters stood by their source, and given that the source was Dr David Kelly, I would have done the same thing.
Thirdly, the particular point about Campbell’s role in “sexing up” the dossier was never made by the BBC – it was made by Gilligan writing in The Mail on Sunday. If it isn’t true, then it is Andrew Gilligan and the MoS that should apologise, not the BBC and its director of news.
Sambrook has decided to review the BBC’s policy on allowing its journalists to write articles and columns for newspapers and he is quite right to do so.
Fourthly, and most importantly, I think he has ensured that the BBC’s own coverage of this long-running debacle has been scrupulously fair.
I’ve listened intently to the BBC’s reporting of the dossier row and I think they’ve bent over backwards to be balanced and to report even the most viciously critical opinions of the BBC from the likes of Gerald Kaufman, Campbell and Peter Mandelson.
It is always extremely difficult and awkward when a news organisation finds itself reporting on its own activities and for the past six weeks or so, BBC News has rarely been out of its own headlines.
Throughout, Sambrook has allowed his own reporters and correspondents to report this story with no apparent pressure or spin from BBC management. That takes some guts and nerve.
Meanwhile, another TV news organisation found itself in deep water last week – and, ironically, the accuser this time was the BBC.
The makers of the BBC Two documentary Fighting the War exposed – or you might say “shafted” – Sky News reporter James Forlong and his producer, whom they accused of faking a report from the British submarine HMS Splendid.
The Sky report – also shown on ITV News – was supposedly filmed during operations in the Gulf, but the BBC documentary crew on board the same submarine revealed that the whole thing was actually filmed while the sub was in dock and the supposedly live firing of a cruise missile was in fact an exercise laid on by the crew enhanced with a library shot of a cruise missile being launched.
The BBC also had a pop at the Navy, which cleared the report for broadcast. Reporter Forlong resigned and Sky News apologised. Given what he did and given the current climate, I don’t see what other outcome there could have been.
However, most TV journalists would admit that there is often a fine line between “hyping up” a story and an outright distortion or falsehood.
If the viewer thought he or she was watching anything but an “exercise”, then clearly Forlong did something very wrong. However, the manipulation of a facility of this kind for dramatic purposes is pretty commonplace in television reporting.
As a Channel 4 News producer covering the war in Bosnia in 1991, I remember once asking some Croatian soldiers if they’d mind interrupting their lunch to fire off their artillery at Serbian positions. They duly obliged and we had some excellent pictures to illustrate the battles around Dubrovnik at the time. We didn’t bother to mention the interrupted lunch. Was that a sackable offence? There’s never much love lost between documentary makers and TV news journalists, especially when they’re competing for restricted access and exclusives. This was particularly true during the Gulf War, when documentary makers were desperately trying to keep the hundreds of pooled news cameras off their patch.
The BBC producer who exposed Forlong to The Guardian said: “This sort of thing undermines the journalistic community of which we are all part.” Absolutely right, but I can’t help sensing a slight whiff of revenge and self-promotion.
I wonder whether the BBC team would have been quite so “righteous” if they had not been incensed about losing their exclusive access in the first place and if they didn’t have a series to promote. TV journalism can get every bit as ugly as the print version.
Finally, returning once more to the dossier saga, compare, if you will, the BBC’s stalwart response to concerted political attack with the response of Italian state broadcaster RAI when one of its journalists was singled out for criticism by the Italian Government.
At a press conference in May, Italy’s Prime Minister, Silvio “Crazy Guy” Berlusconi, criticised veteran RAI broadcaster Enzo Biagi for daring to attack his record of leadership. In response, the state broadcaster unceremoniously booted Signor Biagi and his programme off air after 40 years.
I’m not sure Andrew Gilligan would have lasted very long in that particular climate.
Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five. He’ll be back in four weeks
Next week: Bill Hagerty