We need the BBC to fight like a sumo wrestler
We need the BBC. We need it badly. We do not need the BBC intellectual or cultural: we can get that from elsewhere. We need it arrogant, incoherent, bombastic, gobbling subsidy as it tries to make itself ever more bloated. We need it self-righteous, paranoid, hectoring, infatuated with its own image. Look at us, we need it shrieking every morning, look at our gorgeous website.
The BBC is truly the Cardinal Wolsey of our age. It builds itself new palaces. It gorges itself on public money, feasts at the best hotels, recruits retinues of consultants and pays itself obscene bonuses. And quite right too. With no real Parliament, Britain must have a surrogate one, a media organisation like a sumo wrestler, with rolls of fat.
How else to resist a regular headbutting from Downing Street? How else to stand four square against the most egocentric, least-checked government machine in the Western world? To do this requires not just a public service broadcaster, but one with the resources to keep the rascals on the back foot. It needs a safe revenue and security for its staff from government vendetta. The BBC is a constitutional asset. Indefensible it may be. Survive it must.
Now that is off my chest, to the matter in hand. This week's scrap between the BBC and Tony Blair's aide, Alastair Campbell, offers rich pickings for future scholars of spin. For Mr Campbell to play poor diddums against "media lies" on any subject is laughable. Equally laughable is his charge that his critics have an obsession with Iraq's lack of weapons of mass destruction. What on earth does he expect? He built an edifice of propaganda round this subject for six months. This heat was of his making. If he cannot stand it, he should find another kitchen.
Yet the bone of contention this week is not the invasion of Iraq or the validity of Mr Campbell's frantic search for a casus belli to bamboozle the Attorney-General and the Parliamentary Labour Party. It was always plain that Tony Blair went to Iraq on a wing and a prayer. That many regard the wing as broken and the prayer unanswered is an accusation he cannot avoid. It will stay that way until the professed reason for this dangerous escapade is vindicated, until an "imminent" threat to Britain is proved, Saddam Hussein is brought to justice and a stable democracy is established in his place. None of this has yet been achieved. The BBC has had a difficult war. Before it began, the corporation's news and current affairs operation was caught between a mostly sceptical audience and a Government frantic to show a "clear and present danger". It remained commendably independent of that Government, as is its mission. Its coverage was excellent. Of that there is no doubt. But independent of government is one thing, anti-government is another.
Yesterday in a letter to the BBC's director of news and on Wednesday, Mr Campbell threw down two central challenges to the BBC. He pointed out that, unlike newspapers, the BBC had an absolute obligation to impartiality in public debate. It has a special status and "a global reach". Mr Campbell claimed that during the preamble to the invasion, the BBC showed a "disproportionate focus on dissent" and that this antagonism distorted its editorial judgment.
His concern is understandable. The BBC's morning radio show, the Today programme, has become the parliament of the nation. It is both more thorough and more accessible than the Commons. Ministers flatter it with attendance and are put through their paces as never by MPs. Radio and television have thus become the true "official Opposition". This is a role which the British constitution has forced on broadcasters, like it or not.
My view is that Mr Campbell's charge sticks. At least during the preamble to the war, the tenor of BBC coverage was aggressively critical. I was of the same persuasion, but that is not the issue. By the time of the invasion I had not the slightest doubt of the views of the majority of BBC interviewers and commentators. They were against it.
Next week Tory party hierarchs are visiting the BBC to complain of its bias against them, again with some justice. The standpoint from which almost all BBC interviews are conducted is a vaguely centre-left position. They are invariably hostile to anyone who takes risks and are for centralisation, big government and higher public spending. I have never once heard a BBC interviewer put "the taxpayer question", let alone challenge a Labour or Tory spokesman from the Right.
The BBC tends to reply that, as long as both sides think it biased, it must be "balanced". Not so. Mr Campbell argues with justice that when a matter as serious as war is at stake, scrupulous fairness in reporting and interviewing should be the order of the day. Likewise, the Tories can argue that bias against them is not validated by bias against Mr Blair. The BBC should not be "evenly biased". It should be regarded as unbiased, by and large, by both sides.
Mr Campbell's other charge concerns a report by the BBC's defence analyst, Andrew Gilligan. The reporter claimed that senior figures in the security services expressed "a level of disquiet" at the way their material was being presented by Mr Campbell's propaganda team. The particular bones of contention were the notorious "sexy" and "dodgy" dossiers, of December and February, on Saddam's weapons arsenals. The basis of both remain total mysteries (apparently also to Mr Campbell).
Had Mr Gilligan's story been in a newspaper, it might have passed notice. Papers often ignore each other's scoops. On the BBC, and broadcast round the world, it had authenticity. It was bound to embarrass Mr Blair, who had implied that the dossier was "intelligence" and passed it to Colin Powell, the American Secretary of State, who described it as "exquisite" to the United Nations.
The dodgy dossier is now being spun by Mr Campbell as a mere briefing note. This is absurd. At the time it was the magnum opus, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, of his special "Coalition Information Centre". It was presented to Parliament with trumpets blaring as the killer charge against Saddam, to sway MPs and have Washington purring with delight. It laid out the final casus belli against Iraq.
For the BBC to cite the security services as witnesses against the dossiers was devastating. When I heard Mr Gilligan's report, two thoughts occurred, one that it was wholly plausible, the other that I hoped it was well-sourced. I have an aversion to what American journalism calls "unattributable derogatory quotes". They may be the stuff of British Sunday and, increasingly, daily political writing, but they are deeply suspect.
To allow a politician (or here a spy) to vent spleen with no risk of retribution is not just cowardly. It is an incentive to journalistic fabrication. The lobby convention that allows "a senior minister" to stab a colleague in the back between quotation marks is a bad one. Readers have no way of knowing if the words were said or were invented to spice up copy.
The American ethic (much debated during Watergate) was that such quotes may be used only if the anonymity of the source must be protected and can be disclosed to a senior editor. The BBC did not make it clear yesterday whether the source of Mr Gilligan's highly damaging story was indeed so disclosed. Given the seismic nature of the story, that would seem an elementary precaution.
Mr Campbell last night demanded an apology. He needs none. He is a big boy. I have never known him apologise to those worsted by his black arts. He knew he was playing with fire with the intelligence services. But he is entitled to an assurance that Mr Gilligan's story was properly validated. Downing Street may abuse "single-sourced" material on Saddam's arsenals, but that does not excuse the BBC from higher standards. Given the stakes, this should be a director-general investigation, not the soft interview with the organ-grinder's monkey given on Today yesterday.
The BBC's sprawling imperialism so infuriates all who encounter it as to have every politician longing to give it a bloody nose come its charter renewal. They all will want it butchered in size, its poll tax cut and half its channels contracted out. Wolsey will lose his Hampton Court. But I still believe that the BBC should not run scared. As a news organisation it should remain big, rich and arrogant. It is a vital constitutional irritant and should be commended for making such powerful enemies.