Labour should not wreak revenge

The BBC should have little to fear from Lord Hutton's inquiry into the wretched death of Dr David Kelly. As the hearings proceed throughout the month of August, the corporation's journalism is likely to be vindicated. Lord Hutton will hear a Newsnight reporter's tape recording of a conversation with Dr Kelly in which he linked Alastair Campbell to the "sexing up" of government dossiers on the threat from Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction. Andrew Gilligan, the Today reporter who has been vilified by Mr Campbell and by journalists at the Murdoch-owned Sun and Times, will produce his contemporaneous notes. Detail needs to be filled in, but it is already clear that Mr Gilligan's reports were broadly accurate, that Dr Kelly did not tell his superiors and the House of Commons the full truth, and that fear of exposure may have contributed to his suicide. Sad for Dr Kelly: a relief for the BBC.

Beyond the minutiae of an affair that has obsessed the political and media classes lies an important truth: the BBC's board of governors held its nerve under fire. The members include Baroness Hogg, a former economic adviser to John Major; Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, the former chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, who was briefly Slobodan Milosevic's banker when she worked for NatWest Markets; and Gavyn Davies, who was denounced as a new Labour crony when he was made chairman of the board. These are not men and women on whom a journalist would want to rely in a crisis, but they have stood up for the BBC in its moment of danger. Mr Davies, in particular, forcefully expressed his outrage at the government's behaviour. Since he has a personal fortune and does not want another job when he leaves the BBC, ministers could do nothing to muzzle him.

But if Broadcasting House has good reason for optimism, celebrations may be premature. Official inquiries are a peculiarly British institution, with their own ways of brushing aside unpleasantness. From Lord Denning on the Profumo scandal, through Lord Franks on the Falklands war, Sir Richard Scott on arms sales to Iraq and Sir Anthony Hammond on the awarding of passports to the Hinduja brothers, the inquirers find evidence, express shock and then rein themselves in. They have never taken the obvious next step of blaming the politicians and civil servants for the shocking behaviour their investigations uncover. In the world of official inquiries, crimes don't have perpetrators and blundering happens without blunderers. If Lord Hutton is true to the tradition, he is unlikely to issue any ringing denunciation of the government's behaviour that could help the BBC.

Then there is the ghostly presence of Dr Kelly. He cannot speak for himself. However, his wife is reported to have kept a diary and his family may give evidence on what he said in his final weeks. One mistake the BBC made in the affair was to allow Gilligan to write an article for the Mail on Sunday in which he described his meeting with Dr Kelly at a London hotel. Did this failure of a reporter's duty to protect a confidential source, and the media frenzy it provoked, persuade Dr Kelly to confess to his superiors, on the grounds that his name was bound to leak out sooner or later? The BBC may believe it deserves to be vindicated as holding off a mendacious government, but the Hutton inquiry may side instead with widespread public sentiment that this is the story of a public servant caught in no man's land in a battle between the leviathans of politics and the media.

If they were forced to make a choice, most people would side with the corporation in this conflict. The BBC is the great media success story of our time. In an age of cynicism, it is trusted; its website is among the most popular in the world; its specialist arts and children's channels leave the competition trailing miles behind; it is popular everywhere - except at Westminster, where it has a chronic shortage of friends. New Labour prefers to have friends in the Murdoch media empire. Rupert Murdoch gives the government the Sun, the government helps his business to expand. The Conservatives, meanwhile, are lost in free-market extremism. They have consistently failed to defend public service broadcasting, even when it is under attack from a government that Her Majesty's Opposition is meant to oppose.

With no political support, the BBC can expect to be punished. Few at the BBC believe the promises made by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Tessa Jowell, that no price will be paid for standing up to Mr Campbell, not least because her own private conversations with BBC managers over the past few weeks are said to have been hectoring and vengeful. In all likelihood, BBC governors will be rewarded for their independence of spirit with the transferral of more of their powers to Ofcom, the government's media quango peopled with accountants and former Downing Street aides. Every battle between broadcasters and government, from the Suez crisis of 1956 on, has ended with the politicians exacting their revenge. Unfortunately, the current dispute is unlikely to end any differently. But there are compelling reasons to hope that it will.

For what has appalled even new Labour supporters over the past two months is the capriciousness of Downing Street in allowing a private feud between Mr Campbell and Mr Gilligan to become a national scandal. Downing Street should now recognise that going for the BBC will further alienate middle-class voters, whose loyalty has already been pushed to breaking point by the Iraq war. The Kelly affair may hurt the BBC, but if Labour tries to wreak revenge, Tony Blair will suffer more.