Socialist Worker

Blair is out to smother dissent

New Labour have seized on Hutton's report to try to stifle any echo of the anti-war movement at the BBC

Issue No. 1887

GREG DYKE issued a statement last Wednesday accepting the Hutton report. It was not enough for Blair, who smelled blood. The government went on the offensive even after the chairman of the BBC's board of governors, Gavyn Davies, stood down. The two governors who effectively forced BBC Director General Dyke out were Lord Ryder and Lady Hogg.

Ryder was Margaret Thatcher's political secretary and then a fixer for John Major. Hogg is chairman of the 3i venture capital company and was the head of John Major's policy unit. Ryder has already stepped in to run the board of governors temporarily. He issued a grovelling apology to the government last week that would not have been out of place at a Stalinist show trial.

Blair and culture secretary Tessa Jowell have suggested that they are keen to have a solid Tory fill the permanent post. A Tory-run BBC is what Blair means by 'balance'.

Dyke's post is temporarily being filled by Mark Byford. He was responsible for sacking two Arab journalists, Abdul Hadi Jiad and Adli Hawwari, at the World Service in the run-up to the war in what staff see as an attempt to silence anti-war reporting.

He and head of personnel Stephen Dando have already pencilled in a string of disciplinary hearings for staff who face being scapegoats as a result of Hutton. It was Byford who signed a notorious memo to BBC staff 12 months ago telling them they could not go on the 15 February anti-war demonstration. But in his counterblast to the government Greg Dyke has revealed how he himself chaired the top emergency committee at the BBC which issued that instruction and sought to ensure pro-war coverage.

Dyke wrote to Blair the day after war started last year outlining the measures his committee took. He wrote, 'It was that committee which insisted that we find a balanced audience for programmes like Question Time at a time when it was very hard to find supporters of the war willing to come on. And it was that same committee which, when faced with a massive bias against the war amongst phone-in callers, decided to increase the number of phone lines so that pro-war listeners had a better chance of getting through and getting onto the programmes.'

This incredible admission confirms what anti-war campaigners argued at the time. The BBC squeezed out anti-war voices in the name of 'balance' reflecting what the government wanted, not what the public thought. Yet still, Dyke reveals, the government kept up a ferocious assault on the BBC long before the broadcast in May of Dr Kelly's doubts about the 45 minutes weapons claim.

Blair's media enforcer Alastair Campbell fired off 'a continuous barrage of complaints' to the BBC over its war coverage. Far from being anti-war, an independent study found the BBC was the most pro-war of any British broadcaster. But to have any credibility at all it had to allow a sliver of anti-war coverage.

The government wanted none. The reason it became so obsessed with crushing critical comment was the sheer scale of the anti-war movement. Dyke's letter to Blair is further proof of this. He wrote: 'I do not mean to be rude, but having faced the biggest ever public demonstration in this country and the biggest ever backbench rebellion against a sitting government by its own supporters, would you not agree that your communications advisers are not best placed to advise whether or not the BBC has got the balance right between support and dissent?'

Clamping down on criticism of the rich and powerful

ONE PART of Hutton's report would make it impossible for journalists to report what whistleblowers have to say about wrongdoing in high places. Hutton said that 'accusations of fact impugning the integrity of others should not be made in the media'. An internal BBC report called 'Freedom of Speech', drawn up on the advice of barrister Andrew Caldecott, says that is wrong in law. Media lawyers are up in arms that Hutton has rubbished the rulings that do allow journalists a slender space to report on the rich and powerful.

Hutton's statement is of a piece with his previous rulings. He turned down the appeal of former MI5 whistleblower David Shayler. Hutton ruled that the public interest and the right to know if the security services had broken the law was no justification for breaking the notorious Official Secrets Act.

Shayler told Socialist Worker, 'There is no doubt the government exaggerated the dossier. Alastair Campbell admits he changed the word 'may' to 'will', which is turning a possibility into an accomplished fact. And of course, miraculously, just before the date of publication the 45 minutes 'evidence' appears from a single Iraqi dissident, who was part of a group that was probably being funded by MI6. Blair was never cross-examined by Hutton under oath and asked if he or anyone else threatened to prosecute Kelly under the Official Secrets Act. That's the kind of thing that can drive someone to take their own life. It is clear that this war and the reasons given for it are wrong. And it's clear that Hutton is attempting to whitewash the whole establishment and make it even harder to report on what it does.'

The trial is due to start under the Official Secrets Act shortly of Katherine Gun, who worked at the GCHQ spying centre. She revealed that the US government was bullying, bribing and spying on its own allies in the run-up to the war in order to win votes at the United Nations Security Council.


Creating a market out of the media

'THE THREAT to independent and critical broadcasting is very serious indeed after the Hutton whitewash,' says Barry White of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. 'The governors of the BBC have buckled completely. It is only the fantastic response of the staff in walking out that has pushed the government back.'

New Labour's Communications Act already allows multinational corporations to buy up British TV channels. Granville Williams, editor of the Free Press, says, 'If you think there was little anti-war coverage here, it is as nothing to what happens in the US, where the big commercial companies control the news. That has an impact. One study shows that 80 percent of people who got their news from the likes of NBC, Fox or CNN believe such war lies as the claim that Iraq was linked to the 11 September attacks on the US. Among those who watch the small, underfunded public service stations the figure drops to 20 percent.'

New Labour has introduced a US-style TV regulator, Ofcom. It has taken the pressure off commercial television companies to produce high quality news and factual programmes. Spending on ITV news has already been slashed from £88 million to £33 million since 1992.

New Labour's revised rules on media ownership have already paved the way for Rupert Murdoch to take over Channel Five. Murdoch also has his sights on the BBC's free internet service and on its digital channels. That's why his papers-the Times, Sun and News of the World-have relentlessly attacked the BBC and called for it to be sold off.

Murdoch and the multinationals want to get rid of the licence fee and break up the BBC. Dyke, who gave £50,000 to New Labour ten years ago, clashed with Blair because he didn't go far enough down this road.

It says an awful lot about how extreme New Labour is that it has ended up savaging one of its millionaire founders because he was not free market enough. And it says a lot about the depth of the crisis Blair is in that he has managed to turn the most successful institution at defending the establishment over the last 80 years, the BBC, into a lightning conductor for mass discontent.

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Sat 7 Feb 2004, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1887
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