BBC 'apologised knowing Hutton legally flawed'
THE BBC’s governors ignored legal advice that Lord Hutton’s report was legally flawed and instead gave Downing Street the apology it had demanded, it was reported today, as Lord Birt, the former director general, condemned "grievous errors" by the corporation which sparked the Hutton Inquiry.
The Independent newspaper listed a number of points it said were contained in a 135-page confidential document.
The newspaper claims that BBC insiders - infuriated by the reaction of senior managers to Lord Hutton’s report - believe the lawyers’ advice could have provided the basis for the corporation to challenge the inquiry’s findings, possibly by seeking a judicial review.
Today, thousands of BBC journalists, technicians and other members of staff are expected to stage a nationwide, union-organised protest at attacks on the corporation and to reinforce the case for editorial independence. Impromptu walk-outs took place across the country last week, amid widespread anger at the Hutton findings and in support of Greg Dyke, who resigned as director general last week.
BBC Scotland staff were due to join the two-hour protests, starting at noon, but it has been emphasised that "broadcast critical" employees would maintain television and radio output.
Jeremy Dear, the general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, which organised the protests along with the technical union, BECTU, said: "It will focus on the question of BBC independence and keeping it free from political interference."
Staff, furious over the "craven and abject" apology by the acting chairman, Lord Ryder, were "keen to maintain strong journalistic ethics rather than timidity in the face of pressure", he added.
Lord Birt, speaking in a House of Lords debate on the Hutton report, condemned senior BBC managers for their "blind defence" of the journalist Andrew Gilligan’s story.
He said: "At the root of this crisis is a slipshod piece of journalism and, let us be clear, it was not ‘mostly right’. The central thrust of the story was unfounded."
Gilligan should have put his allegations to Downing Street, and the Today programme itself failed to exercise proper editorial scrutiny over its reporter, he added.
Lord Birt also criticised senior staff for not bringing in the BBC’s "best editorial and legal minds".
He said: "The BBC was damaged in this instance above all by its failure to respond properly after the story was broadcast. When the coverage was challenged, it should have been investigated rigorously by BBC executives but, transfixed by outside attack, they did not.
"Rather, we had blind defence and sophistry."
The governors had focused purely on the "sacred" independence of the BBC, he said, and failed to focus on the need to safeguard the integrity of the corporation’s journalism and try to discover if the story was actually true.
"The story in question, in the form that it took, was at odds with the corporation’s own high and stated standards. It shouldn’t have happened and it shouldn’t have been defended," he continued.
"From top to bottom, a series of grievous errors was made, and it was those errors that damaged the BBC."
Also in the debate, Lord Ryder said it was necessary for the corporation to apologise for its mistakes in the wake of the Hutton report.
Lord Ryder, a former Conservative chief whip, spoke from the cross benches of the Lords while making his maiden speech. "Most of the mistakes were conceded during the inquiry itself," he said.
The former chairman, Gavyn Davies, accepted ultimate responsibility by resigning as chairman of the board. Mr Dyke left the following day.
The departures were described by Lord Ryder as "sad losses" for the BBC.
But he said the corporation must "now set its eyes on the future in the public interest", and paid tribute to Mark Byford, the acting director general, who was "steeped in public service values" and had widespread respect inside and outside the BBC.
In the past few days, the BBC has suffered accusations of panic and cowardice after bosses considered scrapping an episode of Radio 4’s satirical comedy Absolute Power, starring Stephen Fry and John Bird as scheming spin doctors, because it suggested that Tony Blair was a liar. It decided to edit out the offending words instead.
Meanwhile, the corporation has been forced to issue an apology over the broadcast of an interview by Jeremy Paxman which ended abruptly when the chief constable of Humberside Police walked out.
David Westwood removed his earpiece and stormed off BBC 2’s Newsnight programme after being repeatedly asked about errors that led to the Soham murderer Ian Huntley getting a job at a school.
Mr Westwood, who was widely criticised after Huntley’s trial two months ago, claimed the interview had been deliberately edited to give the erroneous and long-lasting impression that he was evasive and defensive.
After investigating, the BBC admitted it had acted wrongly in broadcasting the walk-out without "showing more fully his earlier answers to the same question", and issued an apology.
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