24

Opportunity or threat? The BBC,
investigative journalism and the
Hutton Report
Steven Barnett
Why is investigative journalism in trouble?
What is the role of the BBC in promoting a healthy journalistic culture?
Why did the BBC's story about WMD create such a furore?
In what ways were the conclusions of Lord Hutton's report misguided?
What are the repercussions for BBC journalism and the BBC itself?

It has been described by several commentators as the gravest crisis in the BBC's history, threatening not just its reputation for impartial and reliable journalism, but its structure, funding and even its very existence. It has also been described as a defeat for journalism and a victory for politicians and government manipulation. It is certainly true that the abrupt departure of both its Chairman and Director General is unprecedented even in the most fraught circumstances of previous BBC confrontations with governments.

Nevertheless, as I shall try to show in this chapter, the furore surrounding the BBC's reporting of intelligence service concerns over the government's stated reasons for going to war with Saddam Hussein, the suicide of David Kelly – the weapons expert and main BBC source – and the subsequent verdict of Lord Hutton's report into the circumstances of Kelly's death has left the BBC and its journalism less damaged than many believed in the immediate aftermath. While the events themselves were cataclysmic for the BBC as well as tragic for David Kelly and his family, there are important lessons to be learned for investigative journalism in general and about the role of the BBC in particular. As the events recede and we can start to take a broader perspective of their significance, it may even be possible to argue that the final outcome will be benign for the BBC.

-328-

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