BBC AT BAY

by RAY FLEMING
I HOLD no brief for Greg Dyke. I do not think he has been a success as Director General of the BBC and his performance during the Hutton enquiry was wholly unsatisfactory. However, I regret that the BBC governors decided to accept his resignation in the context of Tony Blair's demand for a fuller apology than Mr Dyke had offered immediately following the publication of the Hutton report. Plans will already be in hand to advertise the vacant posts of Chairman of the Governors and the Director General of the BBC. Until it is established whether or not Mr Blair, informally advised by Alastair Campbell, intends to oversee the operations of the BBC and ensure that it behaves itself in future, there may not be many applicants. The degree of hostility between No 10 and Broadcasting House is almost, but not quite, unprecedented. Something similar existed at the time of the Suez campaign in 1956 when Anthony Eden was prime minister and instructed his chief press officer, William Clark, to put the BBC under censorship because it was reflecting the Labour Party's opposition to his plans to occupy the Suez Canal. Mr Clark either suffered a sudden onset of deafness or wisely decided to follow a policy of masterly inactivity. I don't think that Alastair Campell would pass such an opportunity by. What should not be forgotten in consideration of yesterday's developments is that both Mr Dyke and the now-departed chairman Gavyn Davies were appointed with the full support to say the least - of No 10 Downing Street. Mr Dyke, a millionaire, was a Labour Party member and donor. Mr Davies, another millionaire, is socially close to Labour ministers and his wife works in Gordon Brown's private office. When they were appointed over widespread protests neither had any experience of public service broadcasting; nor had their predecessors, who both came from commercial TV. If there has been a decline in standards at the BBC as Lord Hutton alleged in his report, it is in so small measure due to the lack of understanding of the special nature of public service broadcasting by those who make the BBC's most senior appointments. THE BBC is now in an extremely vulnerable position. Mark Byford, the newly-appointed acting director general, has spent all his career at the Corporation and distinguished himself while head of the World Service. He is, as they say, a safe pair of hands. In the short term the BBC's difficulty will be to maintain its editorial independence as the debate over the justification for the Iraq war develops. The irony at the heart of this matter, which seems not to have been appreciated by Lord Hutton, is that Andrew Gilligan's questioning of the dossier statement about weapons of mass destruction has proved to be justified. There are no weapons of mass destruction although we went to war because Tony Blair said that they represented an urgent threat to our security. Gilligan's mistake was to imply that the Government knew that the intelligence about the weapons was dodgy but had insisted that it should be included in the dossier anyway; that error was compounded by the failure of editors and managers to realise that it should be be corrected swiftly. Lord Hutton said that Gilligan's insinuation was unfounded but conveniently decided that his terms of reference did not allow him to consider the wider issue of the absence of the weapons at the heart of the matter. The Prime Minister's brief confirmation yesterday afternoon that he supported the BBC's editorial independence was welcome. But no one at the BBC or among those who support it should think that its independence will not be challenged again whenever this government sees the opportunity to do so.

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