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Letter: Dyke to Blair, March 21, 2003

Dear Tony

Thank you for your letter of March 19th. I note that a similar letter was sent to Gavyn Davies, the Chairman of the BBC, and a longer version was sent by Alastair Campbell to our Director of News, Richard Sambrook. They will also be replying.

Firstly, and I do not mean to be rude, but having faced the biggest ever public demonstration in this country and the biggest ever backbench rebellion against a sitting government by its own supporters, would you not agree that your communications advisors are not best placed to advise whether or not the BBC has got the balance right between support and dissent? Given these circumstances they are hardly in a position to make a reasoned judgement about the BBC’s impartiality.

You have been engaged in a difficult battle fighting for your particular view of the world to be accepted and, quite understandably, you want that to be reported. We however have a different role in society. Our role in these circumstances is to try to give a balanced picture.

It is perfectly legitimate for you or your advisors to complain about particular stories - journalism is an imperfect profession - and if we make mistakes as we inevitably do, under my leadership we will always say we were wrong and apologise. However for you to question the whole of the BBC’s journalistic output across a wide range of radio, television and online services because you are concerned about particular stories which don’t favour your view is unfair.

I believe we have made major efforts to ensure that the issues and events surrounding Iraq have been properly reported. Let me explain how we have done that.

Some weeks ago I set up and chaired an ad hoc committee which included all the most senior editorial figures at the BBC in order to discuss our coverage of the Iraq issue.

It was that committee which decided to prevent any senior editorial figures at the BBC from going on the anti-war march; it was that committee which insisted that we had to find a balanced audience for programmes like Question Time at a time when it was very hard to find supporters of the war willing to come on; and it was that same committee which, when faced with a massive bias against the war amongst phone-in callers, decided to increase the number of phone lines so that pro-war listeners had a better chance of getting through and getting onto the programmes. All this was done in an attempt to ensure our coverage was balanced.

That same committee has discussed on a number of occasions whether or not our reports from Baghdad needed to be qualified. Until yesterday we have been of the opinion that our journalism has not been restricted in a way which required qualification as a matter of course and even yesterday, after the war started, our reporters did not have Iraqi “minders” and were free to move around the city. At not point has their copy been checked before being broadcast.

My point is that we have discussed these sorts of issues at length and made the best judgements we could. That our conclusions didn’t always please Alastair is unfortunate but not our primary concern.

You quote a number of instances where you believe your position has not been fairly reported. I could easily quote an equal number where the opposite applied but this would be a pointless discussion. I can only assure you that under my leadership I will do everything in my power to defend the BBC’s fairness, independence and impartiality. My committee is now meeting on a daily basis and we discuss the reporting of the Iraq issue every morning.

Finally I enclose a CD of a special programme which was broadcast on Radio Four and shows only too well that we fully understand the reality of life in Baghdad and have tried to make our listeners aware of it.

I appreciate the fact that your letter was private. I, too, have no intention of making this reply public.

Best wishes

Greg Dyke