February 9, 2004
Last month’s bloodshed at the British Broadcasting Corporation marks the second time since June, when The New York Times’ top two editors stepped down, that the leadership of one of the world’s most respected news organizations was forced out because of misdeeds by its journalists.
In one of the BBC’s most public embarrassments in its 82-year history, the state-chartered broadcaster’s chairman and director-general (editor-in-chief) resigned under fire. They quit soon after the release Jan. 28 of a scathing report by a senior judge, Lord Hutton. He had been assigned to investigate the suicide last summer of a government weapons expert named David Kelly.
The hapless Kelly had been pushed into a political lava flow after he was fingered as the source for a sensational BBC broadcast last May. That broadcast accused political operatives of British Prime Minister Tony Blair of improperly altering a key September 2002 assessment by British intelligence of Iraq’s strategic arms.
The alterations not only puffed up the intelligence dossier to bolster the case that Iraq was a trigger-pull away from unleashing massively destructive weapons on the world. According to the BBC broadcast, the changes also represented a deliberate deceit, since the people revising the report ”probably knew” that key elements weren’t true.
Hutton concluded that the allegation of lying was unfounded. The dossier was indeed tarted up by political operatives, he found, but there was no good evidence that they strayed beyond putting the best light they could on what they believed to be true.
Instead, Hutton assailed the BBC’s editorial controls as ”defective” and castigated the broadcaster for sloppy work.
In the aftermath, the BBC’s two highest officials fell on their swords, followed by the reporter on the May broadcast.
What’s baffling about the BBC crisis is that, on balance, the report that provoked it was essentially correct:
Yes, the September 2002 dossier did undergo editorial revisions at the hands of political operatives.
Yes, the purpose of those revisions was to toughen — or as the BBC put it, ”sex up” — the report’s conclusions that Saddam Hussein had battle-ready chemical and biological weapons that he was prepared to let fly.
Yes, a presumably honest intelligence assessment was released publicly only after it had been spiced and diced in a political Cuisinart by partisan flacks who aimed to cook up consent for a war.
And Blair relied on that dossier to assert that the threat to international peace was urgent and that Iraq could fire off its terrible weaponry within 45 minutes. So in March 2003, Britain joined the U.S. invasion force.
Still, even if the BBC’s disputed report was more accurate than the intelligence dossier it savaged, it doesn’t mean that the network’s conduct was above reproach.
The damaging broadcast consisted of an unscripted conversation between the anchor of the 6 a.m. Today program and defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan. Nobody had reviewed or edited Gilligan’s comments.
He based them on a week-old conversation with weapons expert Kelly. Gilligan later could produce no notes. Despite vigorous protests from Blair’s people, the BBC refused to reexamine his allegations, which Kelly would not confirm.
In short, the BBC was just as heedless and just as arrogant as the politicos who were the targets of the broadcast. The broadcaster’s new regime, it is suggested, had been trying to rejuvenate The Beeb with injections of the go-go scoop-madness that, in Britain, is associated with the upstart commercial networks (where both Gilligan and the deposed director-general cut their teeth.)
Commentators describe an odd infusion of headstrong tabloid reportage into a fusty old institution that confuses its authority with infallibility. Nevertheless it all seems, as the British would say, small beer when compared with a war justified by falsehoods — and led by politicians who, unlike their accusers, have kept their jobs.
The journalistic misconduct in the BBC affair, like that of The New York Times in the Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal, doesn’t seem grave enough to warrant a leadership purge. In both cases, the severity of the response suggests wider problems of management and mission — and perhaps stiff resistance to leaders with plans to change powerful and self-satisfied institutions.
The tragedy is that the misdemeanors of the BBC’s journalists drew the inquisitional focus away from the felonies of the politicians. Those are what the good lord should have been investigating.