Downing Street denies appeal to Dyke over BBC's war coverage
Downing Street yesterday tried to play down any suggestion that Tony Blair or his communications chief, Alastair Campbell, had tried to influence the BBC's editorial independence over war coverage in Iraq by personally contacting its director-general, Greg Dyke.
Refusing to comment one way or another, the Prime Minister's official spokesman, Godric Smith, would not discuss if Dyke had been contacted following Downing Street's outburst of criticism last Friday which targeted a report by defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan on BBC Radio Four's Today .
Gilligan was reporting on the deteriorating law and order situation inside Baghdad. The report said that Iraqis were now living in 'more fear than they have ever known', implying that the current chaos was worst than Saddam Hussein's repressive regime.
Number 10 rubbished this stating: 'Try telling that to people put in shredders or getting their tongues cut out and bleeding to death.'
Although the experienced Gilligan is seen inside the BBC as someone who will deliver anti-establishment stories, senior news chiefs are refusing to criticise him, describing his report as 'straight talking.'
However, inside the coalition headquarters in Kuwait, media officers from the military have joked among Gilligan's colleagues that they wanted to know where the BBC man was operating from so they could 'factor in' his co-ordinates in any future attack.
Colleagues say the current government criticism is merely a renewal of old attacks. One said: 'Even in 1991, the then government under John Major was referring to the BBC as the Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation.
'The same nonsense is happening again.'
Despite the government's understanding of the news agenda it creates and tries to manipulate, Blair's administration remains extra-sensitive to criticism of its performance during any military conflict.
However, despite wishing the BBC would be more pro-government, the corporation's news chiefs appear determined to uphold its reputation as an independent source of information.
Mark Damazer, the BBC's deputy director of news, writing in the Sunday Herald today, said: 'Unlike many US broadcasters, the coalition troops were not routinely described [by the BBC] as liberators.
'This is not because BBC journalists fail to recognise that Saddam Hussein is a vicious dictator ... but because to have used this language would have stripped the BBC of credibility for much of its audience abroad and for some in the UK too.'BBC defends its reporter in Baghdad
Sunday April 13, 2003
The BBC has hit back at government criticism of its coverage of the war in Iraq. The corporation's head of news strongly denied Downing Street's accusation that its reporting had been marred by biased journalism that has over-emphasised chaos in Iraqi cities.
'Even if looting was to be expected, it doesn't mean to say we should ignore it,' said Richard Sambrook. 'It is not just the BBC that has covered the street violence and looting. Many other international news organisations thought it an important story, too.'
Calls yesterday for the BBC to be more sensitive to the effect of its reports on the political situation and on the morale of the troops were also dismissed.
'I would be astonished if the army was swayed by particular reports,' said Sambrook. 'It is not the BBC's role to second-guess what the impact of its reports might be on anyone involved in the conflict.What is important is that reporters report what they see.'
The BBC has also determinedly backed the performance of Andrew Gilligan, its radio reporter in Baghdad, who has been singled out for government attack.
Gilligan stands accused of 'making the news' rather than reporting it, but news chiefs at the BBC have continued to support their journalist, who suggested on Friday that the people of Baghdad are now living in greater fear than they were under Saddam.
The Government regards the report as misleading. A Downing Street source told the Observer yesterday that they were 'simply pointing out something that was not accurate'.
The source added: 'The media is constantly looking for new angles, new disasters they can report. Look how quickly we have moved off the subject of the supposed military disaster and on to the next thing.
'All we want is a bit of equilibrium, a balance.'
Gilligan, who is the Today programme's defence and diplomatic correspondent, described the first days of liberty in the city as full of fear. 'The old fear of the regime was habitual, low-level. This fear is sharp and immediate. The fear that your house will be invaded, your property will be taken and your daughters will be raped,' he continued in his report.
Yesterday Chris Bryant, the Labour MP for Rhondda, accused Gilligan of 'getting rather carried away with his own rhetoric'.
'It has felt as if he has been grinding a particular axe,' said Bryant, calling for the BBC to be more understanding to an army that is finding it difficult 'to turn on a sixpence' from a fighting force into a peacekeeping force.
'Information is vital,' he added. 'The way the war is reported is very important to the government and to the army.'
Today programme presenter John Humphrys was quick to respond. 'We are not part of that propaganda war,' he said.
'We are meant to do what, in my view, Andrew Gilligan has done brilliantly over the past few weeks, at enormous personal risk, I might add, which is telling us what he sees and hears. He is not meant to say to himself, "I wonder whether they will approve of that in No 10".'
Gilligan, 34, has been in Baghdad since before the war started and joined the BBC in 1999 after five years on the Sunday Telegraph's foreign news desk and a stint as the newspaper's defence correspondent.
While working on Today he has posed undercover to buy anti-personnel landmines in contravention of the 1998 Landmines Act and obtained leaked official reports about Britain's performance in the Kosovo war. He also broke the story of the RAF's £1billion combat jet that failed to drop precision bombs.