Hush money on the licence fee

Observations on BBC journalists

Andrew Gilligan's dodgy expose of the government's dodgy dossier might have passed unnoticed if it weren't for his subsequent Mail on Sunday article, which, according to Tony Blair, put "rocket boosters" on the story. So it's perhaps understandable that the BBC's governors, eager to pre-empt criticism from Lord Hutton, should have decided to concentrate on this aspect of the saga. Even if they had no idea how to reform BBC journalism, they could at least lay into unchaperoned moonlighting. They might have fluffed the Kelly affair itself, but here was an easy way to display the smack of firm governorship.

So last month (as first revealed in the NS) word went out that there were to be "absolutely no exceptions" to new rules that would bar BBC newspeople from writing for newspapers. If big stars quit in protest, it would just be too bad. The corporation was bigger than any individual. And that was that, for a day or two. But then those affected made a few points.

Surely the new diktat wouldn't halt such innocuous outpourings as arts correspondent Rosie Millard's Sunday Times property column? Do tips on house prices really contaminate judgements on theatrical direction? Er, perhaps not. So BBC reporters will, after all, be allowed to write for the papers, provided they stay away from their specialist fields. Or, to put it another way, so long as it looks as if they don't know what they're talking about.

Then, what about those wearisome articles in which reporters plug their own shows? BBC publicity wizards consider that these boost ratings, so they, too, have had to be reprieved. Yet the ill-fated Gilligan article was as perfect a programme tie-in as anyone could wish for. So would it have still got through under the stern new rules?

Naturally, the new ordinance can bind only BBC staff. Except that all the really high-profile offenders - such as John Simpson (Sunday Telegraph) and John Humphrys (Sunday Times) - are on freelance contracts. Some of the BBC's most important faces, such as Andrew Neil, who now dominates TV politics output, perform even grander functions in the world of print. Are all such figures to be forced to choose between Beeb and papers?

Apparently not. Neil (Evening Standard, The Business, Scotsman) and the Westminster Hour presenter Andrew Rawnsley (Observer) are to be exempted from the ban. In spite of their weighty roles, they've been classified as insufficiently "BBC" to be caught by the new ruling. Which leaves just a handful of victims of note: Simpson, Humphrys, Andrew Marr (Daily Telegraph), Fergal Keane (Independent) and the business editor Jeff Randall (Sunday Telegraph). Inevitably, some of these picked-upon few are growing restive. According to the Telegraph, Marr is threatening to mend the impending damage to his family's finances by withdrawing carrots from his daughter's guinea pig, Mr Snuffles.

This harsh measure may prove unnecessary. Moved no doubt by the injustice of their proposals, the governors intend to compensate gagged writers for lost earnings. So licence-payers will end up funding what has been dubbed "journalistic set-aside". Some may wonder why they should have to pay this hush money. Broadcasters required to be impartial in their work still have opinions. Aren't we better off knowing what these are, so we can discount them? Presenters who write as well as ramble may think more clearly as a result. And don't even journalistic fat cats have a right to free speech?

Already, those facing the muzzle have attracted unexpected support. Perhaps because of this, as we went to press, yet more rethinking seemed to be under way at Broadcasting House. On what may or may not get written for the papers, that is. Not on the doubtful state of the BBC's own journalism. That's a topic which the governors may or may not have time to get round to in due course.