Tue, Jul 29, 2003 - Page 6 News List

BBC accuses Cabinet of foul play

REVENGE?The BBC's chairman Gavyn Davies said that ministers threatened to give Ofcom more regulatory power thereby reducing the media giant's independence


The UK Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell Sunday sought to extinguish the still-incendiary row between the British government and the BBC after the corporation's chairman, Gavyn Davies, accused ministers of seeking to destroy its independence "out of revenge."

Two days after she appeared to suggest the opposite, Jowell was forced to state there was "absolutely no question" of the decision to renew the BBC's charter being influenced by the fighting sparked by the Radio 4 Today program's report that the government "sexed up" its dossier on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, and inflamed by the suicide of weapons expert David Kelly, the source of the story.

She also offered a barely coded rebuke to the ambitious Cabinet minister Peter Hain, who Sunday accused the BBC of "tabloid journalism," and the former minister Peter Mandelson, who launched a similar attack a week ago.

In comments that could apply to all three men, she insisted: "This is a wholly unnecessary row and I think that everybody should ... remember that Kelly's funeral has not yet taken place, and there is a case for restraint and respect for his family at a time they need space to grieve. Many people will find this completely uninvited row distasteful in the context of the family's grief."

Her rebuke, made on BBC Radio 4's World at One program and reiterated in a strongly worded statement in which she accused Davies of "inflaming" the situation, came as the BBC prepared to face detailed scrutiny of the weaker aspects of its Iraq dossier case.

Kevin Marsh, the Today program editor, personally approved his reporter Andrew Gilligan's subsequent article in the Mail on Sunday newspaper, which accused Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's director of communications, of "sexing up" the dossier.

Three days earlier, on the Today program, Gilligan was careful never to mention Campbell by name.

The question of why the BBC changed its position is likely to come up in Lord Hutton's judicial inquiry into the death of Kelly, the weapons expert who was the source for at least four BBC journalists: Gilligan, Susan Watts, Gavin Hewitt, and Jane Corbin.

The corporation said Sunday night that Marsh had approved the inclusion of Campbell's name in Gilligan's Mail on Sunday article because other papers had, by then, linked him to the dossier row. But senior executives admit privately that the newspaper report is the weakest element of their case.

Sunday night, civility briefly flickered between both sides as the BBC welcomed Jowell's reassurance that no "dark motives" would affect its charter renewal, which is due in 2006, and that the government had no desire to undermine the corporation's independence.

Her reassurance came after Davies accused ministers of "political bullying," as he raised concern over speculation that ministers were considering scrapping the independent governors and handing over their powers to the new media regulatory body, Ofcom.

In an article in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, Davies -- a Labour party donor -- wrote: "Our integrity is under attack and we are chastised for taking a different view on editorial matters from that of the government and its supporters. Because we have had the temerity to do this, it is hinted that a system that has protected the BBC for 80 years should be swept away and replaced by an external regulator that will `bring the BBC to heel.'"

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