BBC Chairman Davies Resigns in Wake of Hutton Report

29 January 2004

In a grim irony, BBC chairman Gavyn Davies, whose appointment many saw as an act of patronage by prime minister Blair, fell on his sword Wednesday after publication of the explosive Hutton Report.

The report, compiled solus by one of Britain's most senior judges, Lord James Hutton (chosen to conduct the inquiry by Blair), excoriated the BBC and exonerated the prime minister and his political henchmen from culpability in the circumstances that led to the alleged suicide of British civil servant and weapons expert Dr David Kelly.

The affair took root last May, when BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan privately interviewed Dr Kelly and later broadcast a two-minute radio report accusing the Blair administration of embellishing the case for war against Iraq by making false assertions and "sexing up" a publicly released intelligence dossier.

Gilligan did not name Kelly as his source and remained silent even when later under intense pressure. Kelly's identity was eventually leaked by a government agency -- at the behest, it was rumoured, of the prime minister or one of his lieutenants.

Government fury at the Gilligan allegation led to demands for its retraction. This was refused by the BBC's board of governors after an internal investigation, and its executive management, notably director general Greg Dyke (who also doubles as editor-in-chief), stood foursquare behind Gilligan in the face of unprecedented government pressure.

The "sexing-up" accusation was seized with relish by anti-war newspapers and politicians as proof that the PM had deliberately misled parliament about the case for war. Then, after Kelly's death, Hutton was called in by the beleaguered Blair with a brief to investigate and report on the affair, even set his own terms of reference.

Hutton's conclusions (on which there is no right of appeal) are seen by some as a whitewash. Indeed, UK daily newspaper The Independent splashed the word across its front page this morning.

Advocates of tough, adversarial reporting also fear that Hutton's tome could stifle the ability of news media in general to question the government's motives, particularly on the Iraq war. "Whatever mistakes were made, government clashes with the state broadcaster are dangerous; there are implications for every journalist," wrote Jon Snow, who anchors the 7pm news on one commercial rival, Channel 4.

But there are implications even more serious. The BBC's Royal Charter (under which it retains its independent, publicly-funded status) will expire in 2006, and its renewal and the terms thereof are already a matter of debate and consultation. The corporation has many formidable enemies.

Long before the Kelly affair -- even before the first rumblings of the Iraq war --- rightwing politicians and rival media interests were gunning for the BBC. Antipathy ranges from demands for outright closure at one extreme to loss of its self-regulatory status at the other.

Under recent legislation, the Blair administration created a new broadcast, internet and telecommunications regulator, Ofcom, which oversees all other broadcast organisations. The Hutton outcome will strengthen demands that the BBC too is placed under its control.

"The governors and executive of the BBC are put there to serve the British public and no one else," said Gavyn Davies in his resignation statement. "They are able to do this because the constitution of the BBC makes its governance independent of any political or commercial interest, and because the license fee ensures secure funding for five years at a stretch. If these twin pillars are undermined, the whole edifice could come tumbling down."

Will there now be an outbreak of hara-kiri in the wake of chairman Davies?

"He had to resign not because of what Andrew Gilligan did, but because of the failure of governance," opines former deputy chief executive of BBC News Richard Ayre, now a consultant in media ethics. "[The BBC] now has to think really seriously about whether other resignations are required."

Data sourced from: New York Times; additional content by WARC staff