Exclusive: how the BBC will gag its stars

John Kampfner reveals that the freedoms of TV and radio reporters and presenters could be curtailed

Out of sight of the corporation's journalists, the BBC's management is discreetly preparing for life after Hutton. The conclusions of the inquiry will be presented in mid-January - Monday 12 is the provisional date - but executives at the BBC are already preparing pre-emptive reforms to take some of the sting out of Lord Hutton's criticisms. Their actions will determine the way news, particularly political news, is reported on TV and radio for years to come.

The most controversial change is likely to be a ban on all BBC presenters and reporters writing regular "political" newspaper columns - a restriction prompted by Andrew Gilligan's article for the Mail on Sunday in which he took his "sexing up" alle- gations against the government further than he had done in the Today programme, naming Alastair Campbell as the person responsible. The proposals have still to go before the governors, but programme editors, senior correspondents and managers are working from the assumption that the brief, and largely healthy, period when the BBC encouraged cross-fertilisation between broadcasters and print is drawing to a close.

The decision, expected early next month, is likely to cause consternation among senior figures such as John Humphrys. His column in the Sunday Times is one of the more problematical. Jeff Randall provides forthright comments on business in the Sunday Telegraph, while John Simpson is equally outspoken in the same paper, albeit on foreign affairs only. Andrew Marr's weekly column in the Daily Telegraph may survive because Marr goes out of his way not to ruffle feathers. James Naughtie's thoughts on opera and classical music are not deemed a problem.

It could cost licence fee payers hundreds of thousands of pounds for the BBC to compensate newspapers for curtailed contracts. It will raise all kinds of inconsistencies - such as what constitutes "political", what constitutes "regular", and what about book writing? It could lead to several prominent people taking their talents elsewhere, and it may deter print journalists from following in the footsteps of Marr and Gilligan.

But BBC bosses see the change as an inevitable trade-off with the government and with the governors. The more enlightened bosses hope it will be the start of a process that reinforces good, edgy journalism and keeps the safety-first advocates at bay. That is a hope - not necessarily an expectation.

The interval between the end of the Hutton hearings in late September and the publication of the report has allowed both the corporation and the government to take stock of a relation-ship that had turned sour and ugly. The departure of Alastair Campbell has done much to remove the tension. His successor as Tony Blair's communications director, David Hill, has played it more low-key. Today, the Radio 4 programme at the sharp end, has not received a single serious complaint from Downing Street in two months, not even about its report on Margaret Hodge's record on child abuse. This is a truce without precedent. Attempts, small and large, are being made to mend fences. After appearing on a Radio 5 Live phone-in on 17 November, John Reid, the Health Secretary, made a point of touring the radio newsrooms, including the long-reviled Today and World at One. Both Blair and Gordon Brown have been interviewed more on Today in the past few months than at any time in several years.

The BBC, like the government, hopes that Hutton interprets his remit - to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly - as narrowly as possible. It hopes that the focus will be mainly on Gilligan's reporting and on the various e-mails he sent to MPs on the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee. Executives have been in a quandary about what to do with Gilligan. They believed that keeping him on indefinite gardening leave at licence fee payers' expense was untenable - but so was any return to Today. For the moment they have sent him, as a temporary solution, to 5 Live's reporting team. His future hangs in the balance.

The three executives at the centre of the row - Richard Sambrook, director of news, Greg Dyke, director general, and Gavyn Davies, BBC chairman - appear safe unless, in the words of one senior BBC insider, "Hutton goes nuclear". Dyke's position is the most curious. He continues to give out mixed signals: one minute he is the Roland Rat dumber-down-in-chief, the next he extols the virtues of highbrow journalism. In the past few weeks he has caused raised eyebrows in the corporation by suggesting a post-Hutton "internal process", a euphemism for a full-scale investigation within the BBC about the BBC. He has yet to explain what new information could be uncovered that was not revealed in those compelling weeks of hearings at the law courts. Nor does he seem able to say how, as one of the main actors in the drama, he is best positioned to pass judgement on the affair. He has changed his mind about this twice already.

Other, more precise changes are likely after January. A new complaints procedure is a certainty. The present process is so confused and arbitrary that nobody, not even the people at the top, seems to know how it works. It is all supposed to come under a department called the Programme Complaints Unit, which reports to the director general, but few politicians or organisations have ever dealt with it. Above this is the even more obscure Governors' Complaints Committee. Most often, grievances have gone to the programmes themselves or to the managers in charge of them.

It is not uncommon for two different managers to respond to the same complaint in different ways at the same time. The post-Hutton plan is to put in place a more powerful, ombudsman- style process to investigate serious problems. But that could just add another layer of bureaucracy. The BBC has never lacked for managers. Direction is another matter.

Managers are also considering a post-Hutton "mission statement", clarifying what the BBC wants its jour-nalism to be. Slow and reflective - a broadcast channel of record? Entertaining and ratings-chasing - with an emphasis on human interest? Or original, inventive and agenda-setting?

The BBC tries, at different times, to pursue different objectives - and often falls between all of them. It needs to revisit the ideas of objectivity, balance, fairness, neutrality and impartiality - terms that have been used interchangeably and vaguely. It has yet to answer the question of what the role is of a public service broadcaster in a commercial, multi-channel world.

Behind this broad concern lie more detailed issues. They include the imminent "relaunch" of News 24, the rolling news channel, in response to a government-commissioned report on its output written by Richard Lambert, ex-editor of the Financial Times. The aim is to carve out a more distinctive and detached agenda for the channel, rather than to take on Sky in the ratings game.

Then there are the main TV news bulletins, the current affairs shows and one-off documentaries. The tone of these is set by the controllers of BBC1 and BBC2. People in the news directorate want to wrest back control, to make these programmes less anodyne, less stylised, more upmarket.

Editorial control is another issue. Rarely do programme editors look through "packaged" reports before they are put out. Live "two-way" interviews are not routinely discussed in advance. One idea that BBC executives are working on is to differentiate more clearly between senior and junior correspondents, demonstrating to viewers and listeners that a more experienced journalist is in a position to offer a judgement, while the younger ones are there solely to report what is going on. Already there is a sense that, in the light of the Gilligan furore, many journalists of all categories are censoring themselves. BBC News has historically been risk-averse, and the temptation has been to revert to type to ensure an easy life.

So the stakes overall are desperately high. The Hutton inquiry coincided with the start of discussions on the renewal of the BBC's charter. Although this is not due until the end of 2006, both the BBC and the government are already deep in mega-phone diplomacy. Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, appears to have retracted her suggestion that Hutton would have an impact on the discussions, but she has so far confined her assurances only to promising a "BBC of scale" - in other words, rejecting suggestions that the potentially profitable parts of the corporation should be hived off from the rest.

Davies has served notice he wants no dilution of the governors' powers. That seems a lost cause. The new media regulator, Ofcom, which begins work on 28 December, will have more powers over BBC journalism than is generally understood, and the power will be felt more as Ofcom establishes itself. Some in the corporation are urging Davies to use Hutton to concede that the governors fell short in their duty to investigate the Gilligan/Kelly issue at their emergency meeting in July, and to move towards a dual structure for the board, with one set of governors acting on behalf of the corporation and another as regulators.

Davies saw his role as being unashamedly to preserve the independence of an organisation that was under threat. The responses to Hutton will determine not just whether that independence is being preserved, but whether challenging and controversial news reporting on television and radio has had its day.

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