Raymond Snoddy on media: Even a Rear Admiral can't undo damage to BBC

The great thing about newspapers is the unexpected discoveries one often makes at the bottom of an inside page. Sometime a single paragraph is sufficient to make a hair or two stand up on the back of your neck.

The Mail on Sunday, in full pursuit of home secretary David Blunkett, had a considerable exclusive on its front page - the revelation of a previous Blunkett affair, this time with a member of his Home Office staff. But the story that could have been so easily overlooked was there, in all its glory, buried at the bottom of page 15. 'BBC was right on Iraq dossier, says MoD chief' read the headline.

Only days after stepping down as secretary of the Ministry of Defence 'D' Notice Committee, which advises the media on matters of national security, Rear Admiral Nick Wilkinson, decided to unburden himself. 'We know now - and many were fairly certain then - that Andrew Gilligan was more mainly right than the US/UK leadership,' the retired Rear Admiral had written in the British Journalism Review.

The 'many were fairly certain' line is particularly interesting, given the events of a year or so ago. We have all known for some time that Gilligan's reporting was a lot closer to the truth than the utterances of the Prime Minister, but it is nice to see it in print, however modestly and belatedly.

But why was such an interesting story buried so deep inside the paper?

Probably simply because the news caravan has moved on. Blunkett is the red-hot story and Hutton and Gilligan sound like ancient history.

The Mail in all its guises is also, at best, ambivalent about any story that reflects less than totally badly on the BBC. As for the Corporation itself, it does not want to be reminded about the Gilligan affair. The hit has been taken and those who did not have to resign have moved on, with no desire to revisit the issue.

The worry is that the BBC has embarked on an unprecedented restructuring, involving thousands of job losses, at least in part to appease a government already gifted more than its pound of flesh, courtesy of Lord Hutton. Would the BBC management be so jittery if people such as the Rear Admiral had spoken out a little earlier and some of the BBC governors had not been so spineless?

As the hordes prepare to leave the BBC, or at least contemplate a new life in Manchester, the remaining issue of interest is the relationship between the BBC governors and management and indeed whether the governors can survive at all.

For the time being, Michael Grade and his governors are making all the right noises. They have refused to sign off on all director-general Mark Thompson's ideas until detailed business plans and numbers have been produced. In many cases the governors are insisting on independent external validation of the more radical ideas.

It will be the big test of Grade's plan for an independent board of governors with broadcasting expertise and its own research staff. If it can be made to work, it would make far more sense than handing over the job of governance of the BBC either to Ofcom or a new and completely separate bureaucracy.

Culture secretary Tessa Jowell has begun to take a firmer tone on the issue of BBC governance - in advance of moving on to another department.

Perhaps before she turns the vice too tightly on the BBC, she should read, and inwardly note, the views of Rear Admiral Wilkinson on the 'mainly right' Gilligan, who is coming up smelling rosier with the passing of every month.


- The News of the World broke the original story of home secretary David Blunkett's affair with Spectator publisher Kimberly Quinn (then known by her maiden name, Fortier) in August.

- Last month The Sunday Telegraph updated the story with the news that Quinn had accused Blunkett of abusing his position by fast-tracking her Filipino nanny's visa.

- Two weeks ago, the News of the World ran another Blunkett exclusive, with news that he had hired lawyers to challenge the paternity of Quinn's two-year-old son and the child to which she is soon to give birth. The Mail bought the nanny's story.

- Last week The New York Times said that 'Britain has become the unofficial capital of the politico-sexual scandal' because of 'its adolescent obsession with naughty behaviour'.


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