29/01/2004

BBC Chairman resigns, but expresses concern over Hutton

In the aftermath of The Hutton Report, which roundly condemned BBC editorial procedures and its governance, the BBC Chairman of Governors Gavyn Davies has resigned.

Mr Davies accepted that as the chief authority of the corporation ultimate responsibility for its actions lay with him, but also expressed his concerns with the report’s conclusions and its implications for the BBC and independent journalism in Britain.

He questioned whether it was possible to reconcile Lord Hutton's “bald conclusions” on the production of the September 2002 dossier with the balance of evidence that was presented to him during the inquiry, and whether he had taken sufficient account of what was said by Dr David Kelly on tape to the Newsnight reporter Susan Watts, much of which corroborated Andrew Gilligan’s reports.

Though he expressed regret that the Governors had not ordered a special investigation as soon as the controversy began, Mr Davies pointed out that any such investigation would have been inconclusive without access to the successive drafts of the September 2002 dossier. He welcomed Lord Hutton’s recognition that an “intemperate attack” by the then Downing Street Director of Communications Alistair Campbell, along with near-constant and unprecedented public criticism from the Government over the corporation’s coverage of the war in Iraq, had “undoubtedly scrambled radar screens at the top of the BBC.”

More seriously, Mr Davies questioned whether Lord Hutton’s conclusions on "restricting the use of unverifiable sources in British journalism" were "based on sound law," and suggested that that their application would constitute a "threat to the freedom of the British press".

This view was supported by National Union of Journalists General Secretary Jeremy Dear, who condemned Lord Hutton’s report as “selective, grossly one-sided and a serious threat to the future of investigative journalism.”

Mr Dear called upon the BBC Governors to “stand firm, defend their reporter [Mr Gilligan] and the essential truth of their story.” Mr Dear also warned that if Mr Gilligan was sacked or disciplined the NUJ would take “whatever action is necessary” to defend its member.

Mr Davies said that to be Chairman of “the finest entity in world broadcasting” was “the greatest privilege of my professional life.”

He heaped praise upon the corporation’s “thousands of programme makers instilled with the values of public service,” and insisted that they must let themselves feel no shame about the Hutton Report, maintaining that no-one at the BBC had deliberately misled the public, and no-one had acted out of malign motivation.

He defended the BBC’s unique position in British life, noting that it is not owned by any government, but “is held in perpetuity by its Governors and management for the British people.”

In a stark warning, he appealed to the public not take the BBC’s existence for granted, as it is “frequently under attack, both from competitors and from others who do not share or understand its principles. Its friends are too often silent when it is under threat.”

He continued: “In the Charter debate now underway, the massive silent majority which loves the BBC needs more often to make its voice heard. Otherwise its future may not be secure."

He warned that if the BBC’s political independence and licence fee funding, its “twin pillars,” were undermined, the whole edifice could come tumbling down.

(GB)

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