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Sunday 1 February 2004

Lord Whitewash joins the establishment counsel

WHAT stuns me is that I actually believed that Lord Hutton would land well-deserved blows on the British government as well as on the BBC.

OK, I didn't think he'd cause Blair to resign, but there was the unimpressive Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, nicely tethered and waiting for the knife, while Alastair Campbell had abandoned the field of battle in advance because he expected a spear in the heart.

And the Conservative leader, that experienced politician Michael Howard - about whose forensic mind everyone goes on and on - was busy upping the ante in the certainty that Hutton would provide him with the ammunition to floor Blair. Still, I'm an historian, a sceptic and a one-time British civil servant: I should have known better.

How could I have been so wrong? Was it because I nurtured a romantic notion that a flinty-eyed Ulster Prod could at heart never really, truly, deeply be a member of the Establishment?

"How could you think he'd attack the government?" asked a friend (once a very senior civil servant), as I wailed in shock on Wednesday evening about a reeling BBC, a gloating Blair and a triumphantly vengeful Campbell. "Surely you remember the three golden rules for prime ministers in a tight corner?

"1) Buy yourself space and time by promising an inquiry.

"2) Define the scope of said inquiry tightly and in your best interests.

"3) Employ shrewdness, ruthlessness and low cunning in choosing a chairman who dislikes boat-rocking."

British prime ministers don't set up inquiries to find out the truth: they set them up to shut up
their critics.

Lord Widgery got Ted Heath's government (temporarily) off the hook in 1972 over Bloody Sunday; Lord Franks fudged the conclusions to his report on how the Thatcher government had left the Falklands open to Argentinian aggression; Sir Richard Scott's report on the sale of arms to Iraq was so detailed and obscure that Major's government was little damaged; and Sir Anthony Hammond's findings about an allegation that the Blair government had traded passports for donations to the accursed Dome were deeply relaxed.

And now, in Hutton, Ireland has provided her very own Lord Whitewash, counsel for the prosecution of the BBC and counsel for the defence of the British government: BBC witnesses were disbelieved - apparently as a matter of principle - while politicians and public servants were in all cases given the benefit of the doubt. I'm tempted to apply to Lord Hutton the label often applied to me by my more ignorant, foam-flecked critics: "lick-spittle to the British Establishment".

Before Eoghan Harris leaps out of his column into mine with his fists raised, I should make it clear that I a) was and am pro the invasion of Iraq, weapons of mass destruction or no weapons of mass destruction, b) think Andrew Gilligan a sensationalist and unreliable journalist, c) deplore the BBC's arrogant failure to investigate complaints dispassionately and d) think its culture deplorably biased towards the left, political correctness and moral relativism.

But it is nonetheless a great institution rightly admired throughout the world for its struggle to be truthful and fair, and to have it at the mercy of New Labour masters of lies and spin horrifies me. Most governments yearn to emasculate the BBC: this lot of control freaks are licking their lips and sharpening their blades.

If the BBC had admitted its errors and apologised in time it wouldn't have got itself into this fine mess. But then, it was partly media pressure that led to that misjudgement. The chairman, Gavyn Davies, and the director general, Greg Dyke - both of whom have now resigned - were so conscious of being painted as New Labour cronies (both men gave money to the party; Davies's wife works for Gordon Brown) that they were hell-bent on proving their independence.

And while they may have been cavalier about complaints about coverage of the war, that was partly a consequence of the vicious daily barrage from Alastair Campbell and his band of guerillas. Better a public broadcaster that errs on the side of criticising the government than the cowering and complaisant tools of ruling cliques that are the norm even in democratic countries.

Still, it's not all bad. Hutton "was too ready to sympathise with the Government and in the end
produced something like a whitewash," said 56 per cent of those polled by the reliable YouGov, 70 percent are fearful that the BBC may become too cautious in its news coverage and too subject to government pressure and 67 per cent trust BBC news journalists compared to 31 per cent who trust ministers.

Auntie Beeb may have her idiosyncrasies and her failings, but she is still loved by the British
public. Tony Blair threatens her at his electoral peril.  

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards