A VERY SAD DAY FOR THE BBC; the Corporation's Plans to 'Re-Educate' Its 7,000 Journalists Are Both Craven and Sinister. New Labour Must Be Laughing Their Socks Off
Byline: STEPHEN GLOVER
THE BBC continues to reel from the Hutton report. It has lost a chairman, a directorgeneral and a leading reporter. It has donned sackcloth and ashes and grovelled to the Government. But none of these acts of misplaced contrition quite compares to its latest self-abasement. It is going to send its journalists back to school.
At an estimated cost of [pounds sterling]50 million, the BBC plans to set up an academy for its 7,000 journalists. Even its most experienced and best known presenters such as Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys may be required to attend the academy, where they will be re-educated in basic journalistic principles and acquainted with the BBC's five new core values.
The idea comes from a report written by Ron Neil, a former head of BBC News, and commissioned in the self-lacerating aftermath of the Hutton report.
One journalist - Andrew Gilligan - makes a mistake which ranged from the very minor to the substantial, according to your point of view, and the BBC in its wisdom decides to spend this enormous sum retraining its vast army of journalists.
It is a huge overreaction, a terrible waste of money and, of course, a gross insult to the Corporation's journalists. But more than any of that, it is rather sinister, with its overtones of Soviet-style re-education as journalists are made to conform to guidelines laid down by bureaucrats and apparatchiks who may be hand-in-glove with the government of the day.
Of course, journalists should be properly trained - and they should not be taken on by the BBC unless they have been.
Most of what they know they will learn on the job. They must observe essential ground rules and, as in any newspaper, if they fail to do so they should be censured and, if they repeat the mistake, be fired.
Mr Neil and his group have reasonably recommended that the BBC should stop using twoway conversations between presenters and reporters when potentially explosive allegations are being made. It was during one such unscripted conversation on Radio 4's Today programme that Mr Gilligan made the suggestion, later retracted by him, that the Government had deliberately lied when it claimed that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction could be dispatched within 45 minutes.
Fair enough. The BBC is entitled to adapt its rules for reporters, although I am much less sure about Mr Neil's recommendation that journalists should be forced to reveal a single source to a programme editor whenever required to do so. This is contrary to the established journalistic practice of protecting the identity of sources.
But it is one thing to have basic rules, good or bad, quite another to inculcate a whole system of rules and regulations at a special academy. At the very least, it will create a culture of political correctness in which journalists will be increasingly terrified of doing anything that might challenge official orthodoxy. The BBC is already in thrall enough to political correctness.
An academy will be overseen by bureaucrats, not practising journalists. They will teach caution and restraint - characteristics which are often inimical to good journalism. Timid apparatchiks are not going to encourage young journalists to confront Government ministers and vested interests with the robustness and the independence of mind of a Jeremy Paxman or a John Humphrys.
There is a specific danger that, wittingly or unwittingly, these academy bureaucrats will do the Government's work for them. …