The BBC will this week embark on the largest damage limitation exercise, arguably, of its 76-year history.
A team of top executives and in-house lawyers will begin assembling documents, transcripts and tapes relating to the intelligence dossiers on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and the corporation’s reliance on David Kelly, the government scientist found dead last week, as its main source for those stories.
Ostensibly, the team is preparing evidence for the judicial inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Mr Kelly’s death. In reality, their work could determine the future regulation, editorial controls and structure of the publicly-funded broadcaster.
“Everybody is completely reeling from this,” according to one insider. “We are putting together a team to look at each stage of what happened.”
The stakes could not be higher. At the BBC’s central London headquarters, executives led by Greg Dyke, director general, are determined to prevent the affair from escalating into a campaign to reform the BBC.
Britain’s publicly-funded broadcaster – which receives £2.66bn a year in licence fee income – fears that a broader shake-up could jeopardise its worldwide reputation and international expansion plans.
The inquiry coincides with intense media scrutiny both at home and abroad. Sky News, the satellite channel controlled by BSkyB – in which Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation holds a controlling stake – last week announced the resignation of a senior correspondent found to have faked a story during the Iraq war.
In the US, some TV networks have been criticised for flag-waving and unquestioning coverage of the conflict.
In Britain on Sunday, Gerald Kaufman, chairman of the House of Commons culture committee, on Sunday called for Ofcom, the new media regulator, to take over regulation of BBC editorial content from the corporation’s board of governors.
“The corporation has a great deal to answer for. They started all this,” he said. “The first thing they should do is apologise and conduct a rigorous internal inquiry.”
Ofcom is already due to begin a review of public service broadcasting next year; it will ask searching questions of the BBC. But the government has no plans to extend Ofcom’s remit, to cover BBC accuracy and impartiality.
Up to now, the BBC has won acclaim for defending its independence. But Mr Kelly’s death dramatically altered the importance of the slanging match with Downing Street.