BBC row spurs call for reform
Admissions of errors in an explosive report leave the state-funded broadcaster open to censure
LONDON — A BBC reporter's admission of inaccuracies in an explosive broadcast accusing the government of overstating Iraq's weapons capability has added a new twist to a tortuous saga, raising questions about the role and regulation of the British Broadcasting Corp.
Andrew Gilligan, who touched off a firestorm in May with allegations that the government misled the country about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, confessed last week that he had made several mistakes in the report.
Mr. Gilligan stood by the main thrust of his broadcast - that the government exaggerated the WMD threat to make war more palatable to a skeptical public - but apologized for casual errors that, ironically, "sexed up" his own report.
The admission puts a new spin on a bitter row that climaxed in July with the death of David Kelly, a government scientist and the source behind Gilligan's report.
The public inquiry into Dr. Kelly's suicide is set to wrap up Thursday, and the BBC's admission of errors in reporting the scientist's words - not to mention its original insistence that the story was watertight - leaves it open to strong censure from the independent inquiry led by Lord Hutton.
Some are calling for reform of BBC editorial and broadcasting practices to restore the hallmark of quality to the 80-year-old organization. But not everyone is concluding that the BBC is the villain.
"I don't think any news organization would withstand the scrutiny the BBC has been under the last few weeks," says Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster. "The broad thrust of the allegations has been borne out. It's important not to lose sight of the big story."
Gilligan's admission has given rise to a protracted bout of soul-searching within the normally bullish British media. Many correspondents and reporters feel he was sloppy, but say at the same time that few pieces of journalism would hold up under such ferocious public examination, where almost every word uttered has been subjected to forensic inspection. "None of us can put our hand up and say we have never made a slip of the tongue," says one broadcaster, who did not wish to be named. "Anyone can make mistakes."
Within the BBC itself, there is a sense that reform is inevitable. Director General Greg Dyke has promised a review of journalistic practices, while news chiefs admit that reports as sensitive as Gilligan's should have been subjected to closer internal checks before being aired.
But, as experts point out, it is almost impossible to vet every item put out by an organization with more than 2,000 journalists and freelancers around the world.
"The amount of work the BBC does is so enormous that they really have to trust their journalists," says Rod Allen, professor of media studies at City University. "The director general as editor in chief only looks at a small sample of material that is put out. It's not a surprise that he would miss this."
Instead, the corporation is likely to look at the format known as the "two way," in which a news anchor interviews another journalist in a conversation that can occasionally lead to exaggeration.
"One thing they should look at is the peculiar practice of journalists interviewing journalists," says Allen. "They are not scripted and the journalists are talking off the top of their heads. It's an odd way of doing things."
One BBC correspondent said the "two way" doesn't need to be risky as long as broadcasters are careful. But he said he expected new guidelines as a result of the Gilligan affair.
Another loophole likely to be tightened is the common practice of BBC journalists writing opinion pieces for national newspapers. Gilligan repeated his inflammatory remarks in a British daily, further highlighting the habit of supposedly impartial reporters expounding on major themes in opinion pieces.
The BBC will need to take prompt action. The state-funded broadcaster is governed by a charter that comes up for renewal in 2006, and as Mr. Allen points out, a "vindictive" government could make it pay for its mistakes.
Patricia Hodgson, head of the independent television commission, warned at a recent conference that the BBC would have a tough battle to get the charter renewed. She lambasted the system of regulation through a board of governors, noting that they had jumped too hastily to Gilligan's defense without properly checking the integrity of his journalism.
"The BBC is in deep trouble when it comes to the next charter," she said.
But while many are using the Kelly affair as a pretext to condemn the BBC, some observers argue that it is still one of the few institutions in Britain able to produce serious, impartial journalism.
It remains one of the paradoxes of the British media scene that although state funded, the BBC is probably one of the most independent news organizations.
"It is now probably the only properly resourced news organization in the country with a real commitment to balanced news," says Professor Barnett.
"If the BBC can't do investigative journalism, no one can," he adds. "If you believe in the need to challenge the establishment and hold the executive to account and challenge incompetence in any organization, then the BBC has to be at the center of it."