Bad news

Inside Story

Greg Dyke <em>HarperCollins, 340pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0007192339

The BBC is like no other creative organisation in the world. As Greg Dyke's highly readable autobiography (more Radio 5 Live than Radio 3, but none the worse for that) makes clear, the corporation, organisationally speaking, is like a South American republic. The director general is appointed after public campaigns, press assaults, manifestos, posters and slogans. Like the presidency of Colombia, the job is a high-risk occupation. Three of the past four director generals have gone early and the fourth, John Birt, narrowly avoided a similar fate. This is a relatively recent phenomenon: in the first 50 years of the BBC's existence the director general was allowed to retire elegantly and with appropriate honour.

Until Dyke's arrival, morale at the BBC was always low - an occupational hazard in an organisation that gets its pick of each graduating generation of clever, feisty, ambitious, independent men and women, not all of whom can become director general. The former Radio 3 controller Stephen Hearst, displaying a healthy disregard for the arithmetic of a rowing eight, described life at the BBC as "like being cox in a boat in which the other seven members were all trying to catch crabs".

Dyke was the first director general of the BBC to make a determined effort to raise morale. As Will Wyatt, a former director of broadcasting and keen opponent of Dyke's appointment, acknowledged, he cheered the place up. Dyke has a unique ability to encourage loyalty, passion and creativity among those who work for him. He can make even the most tedious meeting enjoyable, although his unrestrained fondness for a joke, including jokes at the expense of the BBC governors (always an easy target), undoubtedly contributed to his eventual exit.

As his autobiography shows, he was an unashamedly populist manager - but with Dyke this approach worked, and produced results. I can think of no other chief executive whose departure would have produced such a genuine and spontaneous demonstration of support. While management is not only, or even mainly, about popularity, it doesn't half help when the going gets rough.

Nevertheless, popularity for Greg Dyke, like patriotism for Edith Cavell, was not enough. The extraordinary events of 2003 and 2004 are described in the later chapters of Inside Story. How could the BBC lose not only a director general, but a chairman as well - especially when nobody, except possibly Lord Hutton, now doubts the fundamental thrust of the BBC's claim that the Joint Intelligence Committee's dossier on Iraq was im-proved as a result of wholly inappropriate pressure from No 10?

The first reason, it has to be admitted, and perhaps more clearly than Greg Dyke felt able to recognise, is that the BBC did get an important part of the story wrong. Andrew Gilligan's statement on the Today programme in the unscripted broadcast at 6.07am on 29 May 2003 (that his source had told him "the government probably knew that the 45-minute figure was wrong") turned out to be unsustainable. His subsequent article in the Mail on Sunday reinforced the error by saying the dossier had been "sexed up" by Alastair Campbell - but that article was not the responsibility of the BBC.

Gilligan's statement was the only weapon of mass destruction discovered during the whole Iraq crisis. And it certainly led to regime change at the BBC. Although the Today programme did not repeat the statement, and although the BBC governors made it clear in July that "the BBC has never accused the Prime Minister of lying, or of seeking to take Britain to war under misleading or false pretences", the damage was done. Campbell had been given a hook on which to hang his subsequent attacks on the BBC.

Far more important was the naivety of Lord Hutton. Honourable, remote, unfamiliar with the world of broadcasting and the ways in which this government attempts - like all governments - to manipulate the media in general and the BBC in particular, he produced a report which emerged as an investigation not into the cause of David Kelly's death (that, in the end, was Dr Kelly's responsibility) but into the BBC's journalism. He seized on some real imperfections, but failed to recognise - indeed, explicitly rejected - the fundamental importance of Gilligan's story. He also glossed over the failure of the Ministry of Defence to discharge its duty of care to Kelly as an employee, and ignored its extraordinary, convoluted and self-serving mechanism for revealing his name. Moreover, Hutton failed to recognise the impact of Campbell's relentless bullying of BBC journalists over many years, and the part that it played in the BBC's response.

Were the governors right to sack Dyke? I don't believe so - even though I don't accept Dyke's view that the decision was mainly an act of revenge by the "posh ladies" (Baroness Hogg and Dame Pauline Neville-Jones). There was a failure of collective nerve on the part of the governors, a failure to understand the damage they would do both to the BBC and to themselves by responding as they did.

Would all this have happened under John Birt and Christopher Bland? Perhaps not - for three reasons. First, Birt understood the importance of systems and controls in the BBC's news organisations, and imposed them firmly; it was only after his departure that such controls were relaxed. Second, Gilligan would never have been hired in Birt's BBC, where there was little enthusiasm for investigative journalism, and where the director general's closeness to No 10 (a huge advantage when it came to renegotiating the licence fee) would probably have prevented such a story ever getting on the air. Third, I would - perhaps - have had enough sense of self-preservation to kick Campbell's complaint (although, bizarrely, he never formally complained) into the long grass of the BBC's formal complaints procedure. Six months of exhaustive analysis and investigation would have led to an outcome that the BBC's governors, director general and news-gathering staff could have supported, and which No 10 would have found it difficult to attack.

There is more to Inside Story than Hutton. It is a fascinating account of a long journey from Hayes in suburban London, via the Hillingdon Mirror, York University, TV-am, London Weekend Television and Pearson to the hallowed (at least until Dyke demystified them) portals of Broadcasting House. The book demonstrates the energy, passion, intelligence and commitment that made Dyke an exceptional director general.

The BBC was not well served by losing him and his chairman, Gavyn Davies. The final irony is the rumoured return of Campbell, the main agent of their downfall, to No 10 for the election. If true, this is bad news, and bad news for BBC News.

Sir Christopher Bland was chairman of the BBC between 1996 and 2001