BBC needs to look again at its news values under the Dyke regime

 

It seems unlikely that Lord Hutton's inquiry will be able to conclude that the BBC grossly misreported David Kelly, writes Patrick Kinsella

A root cause of the crisis for BBC journalism in the Kelly affair has been overlooked; and it matters to us because the BBC sets standards for public service broadcasters everywhere.

Superficially, the BBC's journalism is under such bitter attack by Downing Street simply over questionable judgment in the application of its own editorial procedures.

Relying on a single anonymous source, the Today programme reported that one of Tony Blair's most important justifications for war against Iraq - intelligence reports that Saddam Hussein could have deployed chemical or biological weapons within 45 minutes - was known to be unreliable and had been inserted in a government document under pressure from Downing Street against the advice of the intelligence community.

It's a hard lesson, but experience teaches journalists that people often lie. They are more likely to lie if they think they can get away without exposure, which is why information from anonymous sources is, or ought to be, checked and counterchecked before use.

The principle is set down explicitly in the BBC's Producers' Guidelines. This bible for BBC journalists says that programmes "should be reluctant to rely on only one source". It warns that even simple matters "may well need to be checked and checked again".

Since then the BBC board of governors, in backing the Today team, has said the Guidelines clearly allow for reliance on a single source in "exceptional circumstances", and "stories based on senior intelligence sources are a case in point." So spies don't lie?

The late Dr David Kelly, despite obfuscation by the British government, was in fact a senior intelligence source who knew what he was talking about and was used to briefing journalists. We now know that he had been speaking privately of his concerns about the weapons dossier to reporters from four different BBC programmes, as well as to a group of members of his church.

The four reporters - one of whom has a tape-recording - can't all have got their notes wrong. So it seems unlikely that Lord Hutton's inquiry will be able to conclude that the BBC grossly misreported him.

Yet Dr Kelly, before his apparent suicide, publicly told the House of Commons select committee on foreign affairs that he did not believe he was the Today programme source and did not recognise some of the quotes attributed to him. That's the problem with anonymous sources: they can let you down afterwards.

I don't doubt that the story run by the BBC was broadly correct, but it also seems clear to me that the Today programme was wrong to report it as it did without corroboration.

Dr Kelly was quoted as saying the 45-minute claim was included "against our wishes . . . We believed the source was wrong". In other words he was not speaking only of himself.

It's a common habit for journalists to turn one briefing or a single phone call into a report about "sources", as if several have been consulted. A common habit, and a bad one. There is an enormous difference between reporting that one scientist says the 45 minute-claim was exaggerated, and reporting, as Today did, that "most people in intelligence were unhappy with the dossier".

If true, then a reporter with Andrew Gilligan's connections should have been asked to get others to confirm Dr Kelly's view.

Downing Street spin-master Alastair Campbell repeatedly called the BBC story "a lie" and demanded an apology. But the only lying we know about so far has been on the government side, with officials first denying, then admitting, that Dr Kelly was a senior intelligence source; denying, then admitting, that he had an important role in the dossier; denying, then admitting, that he had lunch with the Defence Secretary; and finally denying, then admitting, that shortly before his death Dr Kelly was twice interrogated and offered a "safe house".

All the BBC can be blamed for is a serious slip from normal editorial procedures.

Superficially, that could be the end of it. The BBC is talking about more specific editorial guidelines on anonymous sources after Lord Hutton reports. And you can be sure that programme editors are already more cautious about possible controversy, especially where the government is concerned.

But if that is the only result it will be a pity, because there's evidence that Today's slip is symptomatic of a wider shift in the BBC's values under the current director-general, Greg Dyke.

Mr Dyke is widely accused of "dumbing down" radio and TV. Since he replaced John Birt in 2000 the BBC has been dropping weighty arts programmes, pushing documentaries and "serious" politics away from prime time and, in the latest popular phrase, "sexing up" news and current affairs.

Regular viewers will have seen it in the emphasis on presentation in TV news, in the arm-waving correspondents for whom in one commentator's view "serious analysis has given way to vacuous performance".

The Today programme itself recruited three new correspondents, including Andrew Gilligan, precisely to spice up its traditional diet of interviews with government ministers and other heavyweight newsmakers.

It's true that BBC news under John Birt was often pompous or boring. One only has to compare the patrician former economics editor, Peter Jay, with the new poptastic business editor, Jeff Randall.

This is not merely a difference of style. The content is different, too, in the selection of less substantial stories and angles. Dyke loyalists speak of "relevance" and "connecting with our different audiences", but we can detect an occasional over-excitement and a rush to broadcast.

Remember the Oryx affair, the deeply troubling BBC libel on an international mining company simply because one of its directors had a similar name to an associate of Osama bin Laden. No proper checks were made before the broadcast. Former reporter and MP Martin Bell fears "a wider pattern of indiscipline" in BBC journalism.

Greg Dyke has been enormously successful in cutting costs and winning big audiences for the BBC, both crucial if a public service broadcaster is to retain the public loyalty that justifies a licence fee. But just as his predecessor found that the price of raising editorial standards was an increased bureaucracy, Dyke's drive for relevance may come at the cost of losing journalistic credibility.

Patrick Kinsella lectures in journalism at Dublin City University. He has worked as a news correspondent and editor at RTÉ and as a reporter and producer in the BBC, including the Today programme