BBC, uncomfortably, must cover itself

LONDON — LONDON - Since its formal creation 76 years ago, the British Broadcasting Corp. has been different from any other news organization in the world, and not just because it has been the largest and farthest-reaching broadcast news enterprise in history.

With billions of dollars in public financing, it has offered sober and in-depth reporting that has been widely regarded as the best in the broadcast world, with standards far above those of commercial outlets that wallow in the mud of competition. It has been a properly British institution, high above the fray.


What a difference a couple of days can make.

Yesterday, the BBC director general, Greg Dyke, resigned his post under pressure brought on by a damning report on the organization's reporting and journalistic standards.


That was followed by his staff violating one of the unwritten tenets of journalism - to cover the news, not make it - when several hundred BBC employees stopped traffic in the streets of London to protest Dyke's ouster and several hundred more walked out of BBC offices in Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow, Cardiff and Londonderry.

Dyke's resignation was the second by a top BBC official in two days. The resignations followed a judicial inquiry that slammed the broadcast giant's journalistic standards for a report that Prime Minister Tony Blair had lied to Parliament to win approval for war with Iraq.

The BBC finds itself in an uncomfortable situation for a news organization that once provided what was considered the most trusted journalism in Britain, an institution that truly made its mark when it continued to broadcast through the bombings of World War II.

Only days ago, political pundits had been predicting the inquiry could lead to Blair's resignation. But the prime minister, who had said he would step down if the judge concluded he had lied, was held blameless by the judge. And the BBC, which had broken a news story it had claimed exposed the rawest of public scandals, has suffered its own resignations.

"The BBC seems today to be in a state of shock," began one newscast yesterday - and that was a news program on the BBC, a largely publicly funded news organization that broadcasts worldwide and is the primary provider of international news for the Pubic Broadcasting Service in the United States.

"BBC IN CRISIS," read the graphic stripped across the bottom of the television screen. "DYKE RESIGNS," read the bulletin on one of the former director general's own channels.

The broadcasts demonstrated the credibility crisis the BBC finds itself in, being forced to cover the biggest story in Britain - with itself at the center.

When it ran a largely sympathetic profile on Dyke yesterday, was it guilty of being kind because he had been one of their own? Or would the BBC have lacked credibility by not running such a profile, a staple of the journalism industry in the wake of high-profile resignations?


The inquiry that led to Dyke's downfall stemmed from a BBC radio broadcast by reporter Andrew Gilligan, who claimed Blair's office exaggerated the threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in the days leading to the war with Iraq.

Lord Hutton, the judge who conducted the inquiry and published his report Wednesday, found those broadcast reports "unfounded," the BBC's editorial processes "faulty," and its management culpable for not investigating the journalist's claims after Blair objected to them.

Hutton's inquiry rejected the allegation that Blair knowingly misled Parliament and the public to win support for war with Iraq. The information about Iraq's military capabilities, true or not, the judge said, was deemed reliable at the time by British intelligence agencies, and the prime minister was blameless for its inclusion.

The BBC is unique in the world. Largely publicly funded by a tax on each television in Britain, it reaches 1.4 billion people around the globe, broadcasting in 46 languages on radio and television. It operates four national radio stations and eight television outlets in Britain and tailors its programming for countries around the world.

In the United States, BBC America, the corporation's dedicated news channel, is available in about 35 million homes and has an average weekday audience of 840,000 viewers. It claims nearly 4 million listeners to its World Service, which is carried on hundreds of public radio stations.

In Britain, where newspapers make no secret of their political allegiance, the BBC has been damned by government after government but in most circles has enjoyed a reputation for unbiased, quality reporting. The turmoil surrounding the criticism of the organization and the downfall of its top two leaders has dominated the news media here since Hutton issued his report.


"This is a serious, serious blow to the BBC and its integrity," said Tim Burt, media editor of the Financial Times, who has written extensively on the broadcast company. "It will undoubtedly put the BBC on the defensive for some time, and its reporting will be questioned every time it reports something somebody doesn't like."

Legislation that provides the BBC with billions of dollars in public financing expires at the end of 2006, and already its critics were using the Hutton report to call for a reduction in funding and for independent oversight.

In recent years, the BBC has added more entertainment programming to its schedules, which are still dominated by news programs that feature traditional newscasts, in-depth documentaries and current-affairs talk shows where foreign correspondents (including The Sun's) are paid to appear.

Because of the BBC's reach, and because of its reputation for reliability, its report on what became known as "the dodgy dossier" carried tremendous weight. Blair's political ratings nose-dived; in the British form of government, a prime minister found lying to Parliament can be forced to resign.

While the mistakes by Gilligan as cited by the judge were serious, the BBC's refusal to correct them - insisting that the crux of the report was true - seemed to cause far more damage to the organization.

Dyke and the BBC's chairman, Gavyn Davies, who resigned within hours of publication of the report, were adamant in their refusal to concede that serious errors were made.


Even Tuesday, Dyke issued only a lukewarm apology, saying he agreed that "certain key findings" in the report were in error but insisting the BBC never claimed Blair had lied - a tough argument to make given that it reported Blair inserted the 45-minute claim knowing it was probably false.

"An apology from the BBC could have nipped this in the bud," said Glen Rangwala, a professor of politics at the University of Cambridge. "At the same time, these are some very damaging developments.

"I fear what we'll see is BBC reporters - indeed, all the broadcast reporters - feeling under exceptional pressure not to challenge the government again in any such controversial territory."

Mark Byford, a 23-year employee of the BBC, was named as interim director general. Lord Ryder was named as acting chairman.

They might have learned some lessons over the past days. Lord Ryder issued a video-taped statement yesterday apologizing, without qualification, for the BBC's mistakes.

Blair, who had rejected Dyke's apology a day earlier, accepted this one.