At 6:07 A.M. on May 29, 2003, in a BBC Radio broadcast, reporter Andrew Gilligan commented on mounting criticism of the Blair government’s rationale for going to war against Iraq.  Citing an anonymous “official” involved in the preparation of the Joint Intelligence Committee dossier used to justify the military campaign, Gilligan said that

[The dossier] was transformed . . . to make it sexier.  The classic example was the statement that weapons of mass destruction were ready for use in 45 minutes.  That information was not in the original draft.  It was included in the dossier against our wishes, because it was not reliable.

The implication was that No. 10 Downing Street had inserted false information into the dossier to justify action it had already decided to take.  This throwaway comment, in one of about 19 live broadcasts Gilligan made that morning, began a bitter struggle between the BBC and the government and led to the death of one man, a special inquiry, and the resignations of Andrew Gilligan and some of the BBC’s top executives.

The government already had a grudge against Gilligan because he had been a journalist for the right-wing Sunday Telegraph and had been the first mainstream journalist to broadcast details of the politically embarrassing proposed E.U. Charter of Fundamental Rights.  The government had also been incensed by the BBC’s general distaste for the Iraqi adventure.  Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s head of communications, was out for revenge and accordingly launched a bitter campaign against both Gilligan and the BBC.

For weeks, the media were full of insults and counterinsults, claims and counterclaims, as Labour battled it out with “Auntie,” to find out who had said what and to whom and when.  The spectacle of these organizations quarreling among themselves was pleasing for many, not least the Conservative Party.  What really galvanized public interest in the affair, however, was the suicide, on July 17, of Dr. David Kelly, a weapons expert (incidentally—and curiously—a Ba’hai) who had met Gilligan and was therefore named as the source for the contentious “45 minute” claim.  There were allegations that the government had deliberately leaked Kelly’s name to the media and that the government was, therefore, indirectly responsible for his death.

This shocking event led to a special inquiry into the circumstances of Kelly’s death, chaired by Lord Hutton, a former lord chief justice of Northern Ireland.  After months of evidence-gathering and cross-examinations, including the questioning of Tony Blair, Hutton’s report was published on January 28, 2004.

He concluded, first, that Kelly had committed suicide and, second, that there had been no cover-up or assassination, as some excitable conspiracy theories had even postulated.  These theories had been boosted by David Kelly’s e-mail to a friend a few hours before killing himself, in which he wrote that there were “many dark actors playing games,” a colorful comment that led to one senior Labour official claiming that Kelly had been “a Walter Mitty character.”  Hutton went on to say that the BBC’s 45-minute allegation was “unfounded,” that the BBC’s editorial control was “defective,” and that there had been no government strategy to leak Kelly’s name to the media.  The government was exonerated, although there was muted criticism of Campbell’s tone, which, Hutton felt, had stoked up tension.  While Hutton was naturally accused of “whitewashing” the government (protestors dressed as judges poured white paint over the gates of Downing Street), his findings were hardly surprising, bearing in mind the strictly limited nature of Hutton’s remit.  As there had clearly been no government strategy to leak Kelly’s name, it was naturally difficult to prove that it had.

The Tories (who, like Republicans in America, always place undue emphasis on the perceived procedural or personal-conduct errors of their opponents) were not the only ones who were surprised by the findings.  The BBC’s two top officials, Chairman of the Board of Governors Gavyn Davies and Director-General Greg Dyke, resigned, on January 28 and 29, respectively—followed, on the 30th, by Andrew Gilligan.  Even Dyke’s and Davies’ close personal connections with Labour—both were Labour supporters and donors, and Davies is married to Sue Nye, who runs Gordon Brown’s private office—could not save them.

There ensued panicky and slightly ludicrous reactions from many on the left who had hoped that members of the Blair government—whom they regard as Thatch-er-ite sell-outs—would be found guilty.  A good example was the press release from the National Union of Journalists, which said that the verdict was “a threat to independent journalism”—a bit rich, coming from a union that forbids its members to hold perceived “racist” views and which campaigns actively against legal political parties of which its leadership disapproves.  Many BBC staffers clubbed together and cofunded a lachrymose newspaper advertisement: “Greg Dyke stood for brave, independent and rigorous BBC journalism that was fearless in its search for the truth.”

In other quarters, however, the verdict was welcomed, even by many Tories, who have long disliked the BBC for its spaniel-like devotion to politically correct thinking and have accused it of anti-Tory bias.  For many on the right, the BBC/Labour rift was a case of thieves falling out.

BBC bias against the Conservatives comes in two forms.  There is a built-in, self-preservative bias, because the Conservatives have, for years, talked about scrapping the compulsory TV license fee, which would effectively end the BBC in its current form.  One shadow over BBC/Labour relations in recent years has been the increasing popularity of this argument within New Labour circles.

Less easily explicable is the generic anti-right-wing, antipatriotic, “antiracist,” “antisexist,” and “antihomophobic” tone of many (not all) BBC programs.  Yet this may not be so much a conscious ideological bias as a reflection of the wider cultural ambience.  This ambience may be partly shaped by the BBC, but it also partly shapes the BBC.  True objectivity is a very rare commodity at any time, and even those who view themselves as “open-minded” are the products of the moral and political climate of their times.

While I would hope that the BBC would strive to rise above conventional “wisdom” and analyze every issue from every possible perspective, perhaps they cannot be entirely blamed for often being unequal to the task.  Few people have the time or the intellectual energy to examine taboos and dissect popular assumptions, and rushed journalists have even less time and energy.  It is no wonder that they often fall into triteness and politically correct cliché.  While we should not excuse the BBC from often failing to live up to its responsibilities, we must not fall into the trap of presuming that all BBC reporters are conscious leftists.

Another point to consider is that the Middle English lack of interest in abstractions and the arts (which can sometimes amount to philistinism) has caused and perpetuated the decades-long dominance of the arts and media by leftists.  Young people with leftist sympathies often gravitate toward careers in the arts or the media, while visceral Tories often gravitate instinctively toward more exciting or lucrative, but less influential, careers in the armed forces or as merchant bankers.  This built-in leftist starting point means that the leftist dominance of the broadcast media is self-reinforcing, with job vacancies being advertised internally, in trade journals or in the Guardian’s extensive media section.

While many BBC journalists are open leftists (such as political editor Andrew Marr, who believes that “repression . . . can be a powerful force for good” when it comes to “racism”), others, such as foreign-affairs editor John Simpson, are Tory supporters, although there are admittedly fewer of them.

Nor should we assume that, if the BBC’s license fee were privatized, high-quality television and radio would automatically ensue.  The examples of the private TV and radio channels are not exactly heartening.  Decaying cultures mean poor programming, almost irrespective of the organizational and financial arrangements of those who produce the programs.

Nevertheless, few could regret the disappearance of Greg Dyke, whose combination of breezy vulgarity and egregious political correctness made many squirm in vicarious embarrassment.  Dyke’s two chief contributions to the BBC were his famous 2001 remark that the Beeb was “hideously white” and his gimmick of issuing employees red and yellow cards (similar to the penalty cards used by English football referees) emblazoned with messages like “Cut the Crap,” which employees were supposed to wave at meetings if they disapproved of the way in which the meeting was being conducted.  John Reith, the illustrious first director-general of the BBC, whose ideal of a paternalistic, uplifting broadcasting service persisted within the corporation until recent times, would have winced.  (Reith was forced out in 1938 after his “self-righteous, unshakeable views became out of date”—as the BBC website oh-so-objectively expresses it.)

This affair gives the Conservatives a chance, perhaps, to forge more cordial contacts within the BBC.  They appear to have taken this hint, because they distanced themselves hurriedly from the unfortunately timed publication of a Tory-commissioned report on broadcasting, Beyond the Charter, which recommended, inter alia, that the license fee be abolished.  Yet they have a lot of ground to make up, and the government will not dare to alienate the BBC entirely, because it knows what a hold the corporation has on the British public’s affections.

The present Royal Charter (the BBC’s role, rights, responsibilities, and structure are set out in a series of ten-year Royal Charters) runs out in 2006.  The review process might recommend abolition of the license fee—which the BBC seems to believe is now inevitable, judging from its efforts to launch ancillary digital and special-interest channels and programs.  The government will no doubt make honeyed threats to ensure that the BBC will be on its best behavior in order to avoid losing its subsidy.  Chances are that, among these pressures, the probable desire of the new BBC heads to avoid rocking the boat, and the Conservatives’ newfound desire to be chummy with the corporation, the license fee will stay in place—an anomaly in an otherwise privatized Britain and a license for the Beeb to resume normal ideological service.

Yet this slight to the BBC will not be quickly forgotten, and some in the Beeb are no doubt already plotting revenge or seeking to assert their own independence by giving Labour a harder time in the future.  The tacit alliance between two of the chief institutions of the British left has been damaged, maybe irreparably.  Whatever happens, Hutton has raised a barrier of distrust between two formerly complementary agencies of dissolution, and for that we should be thankful.