BBC facing its toughest crisis yet
It was a bruising clash between the British state and its own broadcaster.Skip to next paragraph
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The country was immersed in crisis, protesters were on the streets, and the airwaves were thick with reports critical of the government. Ministers were apoplectic at the coverage, but the British Broadcasting Corporation dug in its heels. The resultant stand-off threatened the BBC's very survival.
Sound familiar? Yet this was 1926, when the BBC was still in its infancy and the general strike was testing the strange, symbiotic relationship between a new state-run broadcaster and a government in turmoil.
Crises have come and gone since then, and "Auntie Beeb" has become a globe-girdling giant with more than 2,000 journalists broadcasting in 40-plus languages. Its reporters are known for their ubiquity, dependability, and no-holds-barred interviews. But nothing has shaken this formidable institution like the recent row between Tony Blair's government and the BBC over reporting on Iraq, weapons of mass destruction, and the justification for last year's war.
The drama has gone to the heart of the peculiar relationship between the government and the BBC. The corporation, though funded by the state, often seeks to show its independence and is often accused of being antiestablishment. Yet experts say that if its funding were pulled and it were cut adrift from the state, it would no longer be able to afford to produce quality investigative journalism.
"It is one of the major crisis in the history of the BBC," says Rod Allen, professor of media studies at London's City University. "The BBC is by and large always in conflict with the government. But it comes to a pretty pass when both the chairman and director general have to resign."
The standoff culminated last week, when a public inquiry effectively ruled in favor of the government, criticizing the BBC for one inflammatory report that alleged that Blair's government had exaggerated the WMD threat from Iraq to beef up its own case for war.
The BBC has been left to lick its wounds, learn its lessons, and contemplate a delicate future in which its role and regulation are in need of redefinition. The two issues to be decided are journalistic and financial. Media watchers are looking to see whether the organization recovers from this blow and persists with the bold and occasionally provocative journalism that so angered Blair; and it remains to be seen how the government will conduct an impending review of the state-financed BBC, including decisions over funding and status, in the light of the recent clash.
Chairman Gavyn Davies and director general Greg Dyke quit last week after the public inquiry led by Lord Hutton criticized the BBC's editorial system as "defective" for first permitting the allegations to be aired and then defending them. Reporter Andrew Gilligan also quit.
But the troika didn't go quietly. Mr. Gilligan insisted in his resignation letter that "the government did sex up the dossier" on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Dyke accused Blair's government of "systematically bullying" the BBC over its Iraq coverage.
BBC journalists were bewildered, angry, and shocked by the outcome of the inquiry. Many walked out in solidarity with Dyke and some clubbed together to place an advertisement in a national newspaper vowing to persist with "brave, independent, and rigorous journalism."