Friday, January 30, 2004

The Hutton Affair 2

A reader responds to The Hutton Affair:

While I don’t have any particular well of respect for Gilligan’s journalism, I think the BBC bashers are going a little too far. Tony Blair did base his decision on joining America in the coalition against Iraq largely on the premise that Saddam had WMD. Those weapons have not materialized. I would think it perfectly right that the BBC ask some pretty difficult questions of the government just exactly what the intelligence did show, why it was incorrect, and was it manipulated for political effect. These seem to be perfectly legitimate political questions. Questions, I think that Blair could and did answer. Gilligan’s in particular, and the BBC’s in the larger sense, political attack swallowed its legitimate journalistic search for those answers, but it certainly doesn’t support your charge that the BBC is making up the truth as it wishes it. You’ve got a journalist who pushed too far and in bad need of a good editor.

The reader is perfectly right in saying that the BBC does not, as a practical matter, make up most of its stories. Most are probably accurate to acceptable journalistic standards, certainly those in in science and sports can be cited as examples, and the Belmont Club was wrong in giving the impression, if it did, that it dishes out nothing but fabrications. It can be argued that in this one case, with this one journalist, the BBC had fallen from its true stature. Perhaps this is what happened.

Many years ago I was employed to help determine, on the basis of a sampling, whether certain claims were true or false, and that experience has colored my thinking. The significance of the Hutton inquiry into the Gilligan report is that it provided a sample into the way the BBC's newsmaking process worked. The trouble with making inferences from this sample are twofold. First, it is a very small sampling. Second, it did not involve a "typical" news story, but rather an exceptional one, perhaps the most important story the BBC has ever had to cover. The singular nature of the story suggested that the BBC's newsmaking processes would be at its best. Here was no local story. On this particular story, especially after Alastair Campbell had made an issue of it, hung the fate of a Prime Minister and perhaps, that of the BBC itself. And on display were not merely the supervisory skills of the director of news, but those of his superiors and the board of governors of the BBC itself. Each level in the news management process took its turn in oversight and returned the verdict: we stand by Andrew Gilligan. What he says, we say.

Because the sample is small -- of one in fact -- it is certainly possible that this was an atypical failure on the part of the BBC to properly verify a story. But on the other hand, it is, barring another inquiry, the only sample of its type that we have, and shows in fair detail how the various moving parts of the BBC operated in the newsmaking process. The one thing that stands out was that, unbelievably,  no real evidence was demanded before the Corporation's endorsement of Gilligan was returned and nothing to suggest this was anything but routine. The sample was enough to convince Hutton that there were serious deficiencies in the BBC's journalistic standards. There are certainly problems with the CIA's intelligence systems and it goes beyond just a local agent who didn't push far enough under an incompetent case officer.

In the main, I think the spirit of my original argument in The Hutton Affair was right: too many things have been made up. In an age of terrorism, those who slip the surly bonds of earth risk being buried beneath it.