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BBC’s independence put to the test

London, July 1 (Reuters): The BBC is no stranger to political spats but rarely has the publicly funded broadcaster’s independence been put to the test as now.

The British Broadcasting Corporation is under fierce political fire for the very reporting that made its name across the globe just as it prepares for a debate over its future.

Blasted in the past as a Leftist elite and threatened with having its funding withdrawn, the BBC is at the centre of a vicious row over a report that claimed Prime Minister Tony Blair’s office “sexed up” a dossier on Iraqi weapons.

The Israeli government joined the attack this week, saying it had severed all contacts with the corporation over what it said was biased coverage in one of its programmes.

The war of words comes as the BBC shapes up for a battle to renew its “royal charter” and retain £2.5 billion ($4.16 billion) in tax revenue funding. It also stirs the debate over the broadcaster’s self-regulation.

The BBC is in a tough spot. It is both publicly funded and overseen by a board of governors appointed by the state which has often meant that governments have expected more loyalty from it than from its rivals.

But Auntie — as the BBC is referred to for its prudish image — has gone to great lengths in recent years to stress its independence from both ends of the political spectrum. Facing increased competition, the BBC has also had to become more commercial in its approach, a move that some critics say has jarred with its public duty to broadcasting.

“The BBC is demonstrating its independence. With the charter renewal coming up, some may have expected it to roll over in the row with the government but it hasn’t,” said Jamie Cowling, a research fellow at the Institute of Public Policy Research.

The latest row with the British government pits Blair’s most trusted adviser, communications chief Alastair Campbell, against a BBC defence correspondent.

In what has become an unusually personal battle, Campbell has led his attack on the BBC’s journalistic standards, accusing the broadcaster of reporting lies by breaking a sensational story about Iraq based on an anonymous intelligence source.

The slanging match — over claims the government exaggerated weapons claims to make the case for war on Iraq — has neatly deflected attention from the underlying issues of the war.

The BBC has been here before. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made no secret of her ideological hostility towards it and a list of run-ins included the 1982 Falklands war when the broadcaster was accused of undermining the war effort. Fond of deriding the “pinko” BBC, Thatcher’s Rightist government also toyed with the idea of privatisation.

Despite the latest row, some contend that Blair’s Labour government has been the most supportive of the BBC for years, securing its funding and maintaining its self-regulation.

Ironically, BBC Director General Greg Dyke faces the chairman of the opposition Conservatives on Tuesday to discuss complaints of an anti-conservative bias at the BBC.

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