Ramona Koval’s recent interview with Greg Dyke, former director-general of the BBC, raises many issues of concern to the ABC and its listeners. This is an edited version. The complete interview is available here
RK: One of the most important incidents of collateral damage to emerge from the Iraq war earlier this year arose from the question of the existence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction as a justification for going to war. Nowhere was this argument disputed more than in Britain. This brought the suicide of weapons expert and, as it turned out, whistleblower, Dr David Kelly to public attention. The subsequent investigation of his death by Lord Hutton, and the stoush between the Blair government and the BBC over a report by Andrew Gilligan on the radio for the Today show led to the resignation of BBC chairman, Gavin Davies, and the director-general, Greg Dyke.
The Hutton Report was critical of the BBC, while exonerating the government. Tony Blair’s communications director, Alastair Campbell, used the report to imply the whole thing was about BBC integrity, rather than answer the critics about the role of Number 10 in the sexing up issue. And so the outcome of the Hutton report for the BBC was devastating. It led to the resignation of the chairman, Gavin Davies, and the forced resignation of the director-general, Greg Dyke.
Since then it’s become clear that the weapons of mass destruction dossier was indeed sexed up, though not quite in the way that Gilligan reported. The experiences of the BBC have enormous relevance to Australia and the way our own ABC negotiates its role with government. We’ve had our own contretemps over the Iraq war coverage. These incidents go to the larger question of how we protect the independence of the public broadcaster in the face of an increasingly hostile political climate. Greg Dyke has just published his account of these troubled times as a memoir of his life in the media. It’s called Inside Story.
What I really don’t understand, Greg Dyke, is why there was such a flurry of activity in the BBC after the Hutton report was published why the chairman of the BBC resigned so quickly, why the board of governors took no advice from their own QC as to the value of the Hutton report, and why they forced your hand without anyone doing an analysis of the report, which according to you turns out to be gravely flawed. Can you explain that?
GD: Well, the chairman resigned… Gavin Davies, a man I respect a lot I didn’t agree with his decision to resign, but he resigned… I disagreed with him, and I said we should both stay and fight. Once he’d gone, the board of governors was a bunch of people running around like headless chickens. You know, these are not people that you necessarily respect. They are very much like the people who get appointed to the ABC, you know, they are the great and the good without any understanding they’re not there for any skills.. And therefore these were not people who understood the issues. But on that day they panicked. And they took a decision that I can understand why they took it it was the wrong one. They said, look, we’ve got a new BBC charter coming up that has to be negotiated. How can Greg Dyke negotiate that charter with the government?
My argument is, that was betraying the BBC, because actually what mattered that day was not about the charter or anything else. What mattered was the editorial independence and integrity of the BBC. And they abandoned that.
RK: When you announced that you were going, thousands of BBC employees took to the streets all over Britain to support you. They collected money for a full-page ad in The Daily Telegraph. I thought I’d read that ad it said: ‘Greg Dyke stood for brave, independent and rigorous BBC journalism that was fearless in its search for the truth. We are resolute that the BBC should not step back from its determination to investigate the facts in pursuit of the truth. Through his passion and integrity, Greg inspired us to make programs of the highest quality and creativity. We are dismayed by Greg’s departure, but we are determined to maintain his achievements and his vision for an independent organisation that serves the public above all else.’
Tell me what you thought when you saw that.
GD: In the whole thing it was the only time I think I actually broke down. When people ask me now, what do you miss about the BBC there’s a lot I don’t miss. What I miss is the relationship I had with the people who work there who thought I was on their side. And that’s what that says. They thought I was on their side. What was interesting about that ad, what was interesting about the staff taking to the streets, is it scared Downing Street to death. And actually the reason why the BBC would get a good charter renewal and all the rest of it is because the politicians suddenly discovered that if it comes to a bust-up with the BBC, they’re going to have a bust-up with the staff, but also the public after them taking to the streets, and that ad the public en masse came up to me and said, we’re sorry they got you. And all the polls showed the public was overwhelmingly on the BBC’s side. And actually trust ratings in the BBC have not moved up or down a bit because of that. Trust ratings in Tony Blair have collapsed.
RK: And yet, you know, you say from the moment the BBC stopped arguing the case, that while it had made some mistakes it had been right to broadcast Dr Kelly’s claims that Downing Street had sexed up the dossier to make a more convincing case for war. And you’re saying that nobody really was allowed to make that argument after that apology.
GD: No, they still haven’t. They still haven’t.
RK: So what does that mean, that the aftermath of the Hutton report what effect has it had on the way the BBC reports things?
GD: I think you’ve got to draw the distinction between how it reports everything else and how it reports that particular story. There’s now a new director-general, a good guy; new chairman, good guy. They’re fine. They don’t want to step back into this thing, and you can understand why. However, at some stage they may have to. At some stage they may have to say, look, the BBC was either right or not right in what it did. I don’t think they will, but it might prove necessary. What we don’t know I mean, there’s this strange thing going on in this country at the moment; the disillusionment with Tony Blair is enormous. Now virtually everybody believes he lied about the dossier. I’ve never said he lied. I don’t say anywhere in the book he lied. But everybody believes he lied, and the leader of the Opposition is now saying he lied. All these things weren’t around earlier in the year, but at some stage the BBC, as an organisation, at the very top not in its journalism but at the very top may have to decide, was it right to do what it did in terms of broadcasting the Gilligan report.
RK: Let’s think a bit more globally now I mean there was Lord Hutton and the BBC issue which came out of the reporting of the Iraq war. In North America the public broadcaster, like NPR, has also come under fire from the government and here at the ABC the former minister for communications made 68 complaints about our coverage of the Iraq war in a month or so of AM programs on the radio, saying that our reporting was ‘anti-American’. What can we say about these incidents involving public broadcasters all over the world. What’s happening?
GD: I’m not sure it’s very different from what it used to be. John Simpson, the BBC’s international editor very, very profound journalist I quote a piece from him in the book, saying that almost at every conflict since Suez in ’56, government has tried to pressurise the BBC. That’s their right. The only problem is when the BBC folds. And that must be true of the ABC, and that must be true of public service broadcasting in the States. The problem is in both the BBC and the ABC, it seems to me, that the purse strings are largely controlled by the government. And that’s always going to be the difficult relationship. If Gilligan’s report had been on commercial television here it would have been forgotten. It just happened to be on BBC radio. And at times of conflict, governments tend to think the public service broadcaster belongs to them, and it’s the job of the public service broadcaster to make it very clear that it doesn’t. The other way you can confront it is of course to do the academic research afterwards, and that’s what’s happened in this country; there’s been quite a lot of academic research into the way broadcasters covered the war. And what they found was that the BBC was no different to any other. In fact the BBC was seen to be less opposed to the war than at least two other broadcasters. But of course they’re not the BBC.
RK: Do you think that we can begin to think of issues of independence of public broadcasters from governments when they have control over the funding of these organisations. Do we have a future in the current form and the current funding arrangements?
GD: The problem is, I can’t see any government giving it up. But there will be an interesting discussion to have public sector broadcasters funded in a different way from being approved or not approved by the government of the day. The government of the day will always want something out of the broadcaster. But I quote a woman in the book called Grace Wyndham Goldie, who wrote a book in the 70s but actually was the producer who negotiated with the government in the Suez crisis, which was the first time the government almost took over the BBC, when she insisted that the leader of the Opposition would have air time the night after Britain invaded Suez. And she says I haven’t got the exact words with me, but she says something quite profound about saying, look you’ve got to understand that the tension between broadcasters and government is inevitable. And that nowhere is vigilance more important about political freedom than in the broadcaster. Because what political parties want of a broadcaster and what the nation requires of a broadcaster are profoundly different. And therefore our job one of the jobs of a broadcaster is to hold government to account.
RK: What measures do you think can, or should be in place to protect independence and ward off mediocrity in the governance of public broadcasters?
GD: I think you look for people with particular skills. And you don’t let the minister appoint his mates, which is what does happen. Or someone they met, or someone … you’ve got to try and say, look, we need, say, eight governors. We need these particular sorts of skills, now let’s go looking for them. And being Asian or being black or being Welsh is not a skill. That’s just what you are. You’re looking for particular skills. In the end, though, it’s the chairman who matters. The governors of the BBC have convinced themselves over the years that they’re responsible for the independence of the BBC. Actually they’re not. It’s the chairman, director-general and the senior staff who’ve defended the independence of the BBC over the years. And it’s actually what’s in the culture of the organisation. And when all those people took to the streets, part of what they took to the streets about was and why they took that ad is to say to the politicians, lay off. Get away. And of course it shocked Downing Street beyond belief. They couldn’t believe it. They thought Hutton had cleared them. And instead what they got was a rebellion of the staff against political interference, and they ran a mile.
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