Mark Byford, the BBC’s decent if uncharismatic acting director general, faces a Herculean task. Restoring unity and calm to the ravaged corporation was never going to be easy. One fateful move may now have made it impossible. On top of a review of news procedures, Byford has announced an inquiry into the conduct of the BBC executives involved in the Kelly affair. He is to chair it himself, with the assistance of Stephen Dando, the corporation’s director of human resources. As Sir David Frost cheerily put it while interviewing the acting DG, “It means you can actually interview the person and give him his cards at the same time.”
The idea of such an exercise dates back to the far-off days when Lord Hutton was expected to deliver a modest slap on the wrist to both Downing Street and the BBC. One or two Beeb chaps would be mildly admonished as part of the healing process. In the savage climate that now obtains, arraignment becomes a very different matter. Byford could have quietly forgotten the whole idea. Soon he may wish he had.
The mere prospect of proceedings means that Richard Sambrook, the director of news, must lead the corporation’s 2,000 journalists with what amounts to an indictment hanging over his head. Byford desperately needs to rally such figures behind him: instead he will have to confront them. Those criticised explicitly or implicitly by Lord Hutton include not just Sambrook but Mark Damazer, his deputy, Stephen Mitchell, head of radio news and Kevin Marsh, editor of the Today programme. People like these will not let themselves be crucified by a kangaroo court. The accused are likely to insist on legal representation. Marsh has already instructed solicitors.
And those in the firing line can make a surprisingly impressive case. Lord Hutton pronounced Today‘s editorial system “defective”. However, he arrived at this conclusion without bothering to call Marsh as a witness. Had he done so, he would have been told that Marsh had personally checked Andrew Gilligan’s notes the night before his 6.07am broadcast; that Gilligan had a script in front of him, and that Today‘s day and night editors had both checked that his notes supported it. According to his former colleagues, Gilligan’s two explosive points about the “45 minutes” claim were not in that script; he introduced them from out of the blue. Admittedly, reliance on a live “two-way” enabled this to happen. But Today had used this format without problems for 40 years, and the Gilligan story as scripted (rather than as transmitted) was not so remarkable that it seemed to require special measures.
The aftermath of “the 6.07” may appear more problematic. It is true that executives from Marsh to Sambrook opted to defend the story as transmitted. But according to them, Gilligan claimed that David Kelly had said what he reported, even though his notes did not support this. Only when Gilligan appeared before Lord Hutton did he change this line, according to his former bosses.
There is the matter of “the Kevin Marsh e-mail”, which alerted Mitchell to supposed deficiencies in Gilligan’s reporting, but was never passed to Sambrook. The implication has been that the radio news chaps were covering up a problem of which they were all too well aware.
Not, however, according to them. This e-mail, they suggest, was not something that would ever have been passed up the line. It did not relate to the row with Alastair Campbell, but dealt simply with the future handling of a member of staff.
This version of events dumps such guilt as may be outstanding on Gilligan, Rod Liddle, the former editor of Today who hired him, and Greg Dyke, who (eventually) led the management response to Campbell’s complaint. Conveniently, all three are outside the inquiry’s remit, having left the corporation’s employ.
As it happens, Gilligan hotly disputes the management line and insists that his former bosses are indeed culpable. So will Byford and Dando call for phone and e-mail records to establish what passed between Gilligan and his editors? Will they invite Gilligan to give evidence to their tribunal?
If they acquit their staff without doing so, they can be accused of mistreating Gilligan in exactly the way that Marsh considers Hutton mistreated him. Unfortunately for them, Gilligan is prepared to consider appearing before them, if he is invited to do so.
Suppose, however, that the inquiry manages to accept enough of the management line to acquit all of the accused. Trebles all round? Not exactly. If no real guilt is established, where does that leave the fulsome apologies offered not just by Lord Ryder, the acting chairman of the BBC’s governors, but also by Byford himself? Why has the Byford Beeb felt obliged to disavow exclusives, rein in its news-hounds and appear to make the cringe its default stance? The humiliation this approach has engendered has enraged staff. If it emerges that it was unnecessary, uproar can be expected. Byford, who is already being called “Mr Plod” even by his closest colleagues, will end up taking the rap. The alternative outcome, more departures, would be even more devastating.
Sambrook is loved fiercely by his troops all over the world. Marsh is considered one of the best journalists that the BBC has ever produced. Whether sacked or vindicated, these men are likely to be-come heroes throughout the corpora-tion. Byford, on the other hand, will look both spineless and disloyal, whatever happens. Already, it begins to look as if Hutton will be bringing down yet another BBC chieftain.