A referee's decision is final

To borrow a phrase from Greg Dyke, let’s cut the crap. What was at times an undignified scrap between the Government and the BBC – with the press in general and any pundit who could obtain space or airtime muscling in on the bare-knuckle brawl – is done.

Ladeez and gennulmen… the winner and still, sort of, champion… Tony “Bruiser” Blair.

The boxing analogy is one I employed last August, pre-Hutton, when in this space I wrote: “Where do… 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… any experienced referee would seriously be contemplating stopping the fight.”

The Daily Mirror succinctly latched on to the same comparison the morning after Hutton had raised the Government’s arm to award a widemargin points victory: “The referee has made his decisions and there are no video playbacks and there is no arguing.” Admirable but inaccurate.

The crap was gaining momentum.

So loud were the squeals of “foul”, many of them from those whose loathing of the BBC is surpassed only by their hatred of the Government, that I wouldn’t have blamed the referee if he had retired to his dressing room, switched off the lights and put his fingers in his ears.

Boris Johnson, in his Daily Telegraph column, was one of those who promptly threw his teddy out of the pram. “It is just flipping unbelievable.

He [Blair] is a mixture of Harry Houdini and a greased piglet. He is barely human in his elusiveness.

Nailing Blair is like trying to pin jelly to a wall.”

And you didn’t have to be a Conservative MP to wade in on the side of the “whitewash” argument.

Several days later, Simon Heffer was bleating that “we British have a strong sense of fair play. We already sense that justice has not been done by Hutton.” In Heffer’s rulebook, a strong sense of fair play obviously does not dictate that we resist arguing when the result does not turn out as we had hoped.

By then Andrew Gilligan had followed BBC bigwigs Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke through the door marked “Exit” that leads into Lonely Street. Of the three, Davies went with the most aplomb, simply by remaining silent.

Dyke’s chaotic departure to the wailing lament of some of his former employees, a gathering that at times looked like a reunion of the Engelbert Humperdinck fan club, was a poor advertisement for the corporation’s finesse. Gilligan was the last to limp away, fatuously announcing that although some of his story claiming the Government had sexed-up the Iraq weapons was wrong, he was resigning to protect the BBC, an institution he “loved”.

I doubt it’s a two-way infatuation.

Gilligan might have protected his employer a darn sight better had his initial report been wholly accurate.

And Dyke – whose dynamism must have taken a day off – could have circumvented the whole unhappy episode had he straightaway apologised for the cock-up, rather than clambering on to the high horse from which eventually he was ignominiously to tumble.

By the weekend he was revealing that he had been invited to leave by the governors, rather than resigning of his own volition.

Shame on him. As editor-in-chief, he was obliged to walk, even if a bitter Mail on Sunday was to report that “Majority say Dyke should get his job back” (an online poll of a mere 1,815 people, many of whom may have been responding to an internal BBC e-mail urging protest – some 28,000 are employed there).

The Telegraph, despite banging away about Hutton letting the Government off the hook, must be commended for its balanced coverage. Alongside Boris Johnson’s superbly crafted venom appeared a piece by Janet Daley, in which she attacked Gilligan and observed: “By refusing to retract or offer an apology for a story that it had itself amended [in later broadcasts], the BBC put itself in a position that was logically and professionally indefensible.”

Spot on.

As for allegations that the BBC’s sharp teeth have been extracted, or filed down to the gums, by Hutton – what tosh. The corporation is likely to emerge even stronger from the experience.

Any producer or executive worth their salt will be driven to show that one blunder, no matter how spectacular, does not signal the end of the uncompromising public service journalism that has made it, as even the often hostile Telegraph admitted, “a unique and influential British institution”.

Questions about the Government’s decision to embark upon a war on what looks more and more to have been inaccurate intelligence will, rightly, continue to be asked. But Government versus the BBC is over – so let it go.

When Local Press Limited, a consortium backed by the venture capitalists 3i, bought a group of Irish titles including the Belfast News Letter from Trinity Mirror, assurances were given that David Montgomery, an adviser to 3i, would have “no formal role” in the future of the papers.

Soon afterwards Montgomery turned up at the News Letter office to write a contentious leading article headed “Put the Pride back in Protestant”. Editor Nigel Wareing, pausing only loyally to defend the editorial on BBC Radio Ulster, quickly departed, like a victim of the Thought Police in Nineteen Eighty-Four: “People simply disappeared, always during the night… every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out.”

For some, the story had a familiar ring. Having moved in as chief executive of Mirror Group in 1992, Montgomery pledged in writing that, among other things, he had no plans for job cuts and “the editors of all titles remain in their positions”. Richard Stott and I, respectively editors of the Daily Mirror and The People, were ousted within weeks. Hundreds lost their jobs.

Two days prior to sacking Stott, Montgomery had told the editor he was doing well. “I was tap dancing,” Montgomery later famously declared.

As the News Letter staff have been quick to discover, 2004 is not so different from 1984. Could it be that, to the ominous echo of tap shoes along the office corridors, they are heading for Room 101? “The thing that is in Room 101,” said O’Brien, “is the worst thing in the world.”

Paul Dacre’s Desert Island Discs was interesting – some of those who work for him must have smiled wryly when he described the late John Junor as “the last of the great autocratic editors” – even if the Associated editor-in-chief’s choice of music was largely conservative.

Bing Crosby’s That’s What Life Is All About, with lyrics by Paul’s journalist dad, Peter, nodded in the direction of the trade, but there was no musical memento of Dacre’s long and passionate affair with the Daily Mail.

This was probably because the name of the paper doesn’t suggest itself as a natural to lyricists. “June” or “moon”, it isn’t.

Piers Morgan will have no such problem when, inevitably, he settles into the chair opposite Sue Lawley.

The Human League’s 1982 hit Mirror Man leaps to mind.

As for Rebekah Wade, following Trevor Kavanagh’s scoop in revealing the contents of the Hutton report ahead of its publication, she may no longer be required to select The Walker Brothers’ The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More.

Rolf Harris and Sun Arise, perhaps.

Bill Hagerty is editor of British Journalism Review. He’ll be back in four weeks

Next week: Alison Hastings

by Bill Hagerty

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