Politicians being generally regarded as shifty and untrustworthy, it is understandable that in a contest involving the media and elected representatives, public sympathy is invariably with the former. Tragically, the elevated self-esteem of the Fourth Estate has suffered a body blow in the spirited controversy over the suicide of the British scientist, David Kelly. As one embarrassing detail follows another in the ongoing inquiry headed by Lord Hutton, it is painfully apparent that the journalistic standards of the venerable BBC can’t always stand up to rigorous scrutiny. The proceedings of the inquiry establish that the BBC radio reporter, Mr Andrew Gilligan, based his entire claim of 10, Downing Street having “sexed up” an MI6 report on Iraqi weapons on an unsubstantiated aside by Kelly. To compound his error, he claimed his source was an intelligence official. As if that were not enough, the BBC Board of Governors indulged in grandstanding by sticking to Mr Gilligan’s story, ignoring internal misgivings over the credibility of the reporter’s claims. The chairman of the BBC, Mr Gavyn Davies, even went to the extent of describing indignant protests from Prime Minister Mr Tony Blair’s office as an attempt to destroy public broadcasting through crude intimidation.
Arguably, the top brass of the BBC never imagined that its own exercise in competitive sensationalism would be exposed. If it hadn’t been for Kelly’s tragic suicide and the consequent outcry that led to the Hutton inquiry, the accusing finger would have been pointed at Mr Blair’s office for twisting facts to justify a premeditated war against Mr Saddam Hussein. Few would have believed Mr Alastair Campbell’s claim that the BBC was guilty of “unethical journalism”. Yet, on this narrow point a spin doctor was right and the venerable BBC wrong. That it was knowingly wrong prompts the inescapable conclusion that a public-funded institution has begun to acquire its own political agenda. The contention that under the guise of independence it is “pathologically hostile to the government and official opposition, most British institutions (and) American policy in almost every field”, a charge that has been levelled by some people, cannot be brushed aside peremptorily. The redeeming feature is that this politicization is by no means all-pervasive and if the Hutton inquiry helps restore the balance it would be doing the BBC a great favour. Yet, the goal of fair journalism can only be realized if the media itself acknowledges that journalists too make mistakes. It is humility and modesty, a willingness to say sorry when necessary, rather than pretensions of infallibility that make for a vibrant media culture.