MOYERS: We turn now to the political earthquake that occurred when the BBC duked it out with the British government over its reporting on weapons of mass destruction. This battle of titans shook the foundations of the world's largest news-gathering organizations and almost brought down the government of America's strongest ally in the invasion of Iraq.
It all began after Saddam Hussein's fall. The BBC quoted an unnamed senior British expert on biological and chemical weapons who reportedly said Tony Blair's government had "sexed up" an intelligence dossier to exaggerate the case for war. Here's an excerpt from an explosive radio report by the BBC's Andrew Gilligan:
GILLIGAN: Downing Street, our source says, ordered a week before publication, ordered it to be sexed up, to be more exciting and ordered more facts to be, to be discovered.
MOYERS: The report made it seem that Tony Blair who's approval ratings had already plummeting over both the war and domestic affairs — had been lying.
SMITH: The Prime Minister can't pretend that this is just a simple and small issue. The whole credibility of his government rests on his clearing up these charges. The truth is that nobody believes a word now that the Prime Minister is saying now.
MOYERS: Now Blair's ratings were in a nosedive. The government turned on the BBC in fury and ordered a search for the source of Gilligan's story. The prime suspect proved to be Dr. David Kelly, a respected scientist who had been in Iraq as a weapons inspector back in the '90s.
KELLY: The Iraqis have been fully cooperative.
MOYERS: A few days after Kelly was called to testify before a committee in Parliament, he was found dead near his home. The government appointed a prominent judge, Lord Hutton, to investigate the whole affair. He found that Kelly had committed suicide, that Andrew Gilligan's report of the "sexed up" dossier was unfounded and he exonerated the Blair government.
The BBC was rocked. Andrew Gilligan resigned. Forced from their jobs were BBC chairman Gavyn Davies and Director General Greg Dyke.
Hundreds of BBC staff took to the streets to protest their departure and what they saw as government efforts to curb journalistic independence.
We listened to our fellow journalists across the pond and we have brought back Greg Dyke. Welcome to NOW.
MOYERS: You said in a speech, "If Iraq proved anything, it was that the BBC cannot afford to mix patriotism and journalism." You wouldn't get away with saying that in America.
DYKE: No, but I think that's quite sad. I think that that's something you should question about your society, personally. I don't think it is the job of a journalistic broadcast organization to wave the flag and the patriotism rules or what else.
I think it limits what your journalism is about. And I mean, one of the things I'd be quite interested in knowing what's happening here now is how many of those organizations that wave the flag are now they're seeing more and more evidence are saying, "Well, maybe we got it wrong."
MOYERS: Why has this story of the weapons of mass destruction been so difficult for journalists?
DYKE: I have no doubt that the security services believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Whether there were weapons of mass destruction that can be fired in 45 minutes that could land from Iraq into Cypress, I think there are grave doubts about. But in a situation where nobody's found any weapons of mass destruction, we're all open to question aren't we? Journalists and politicians alike — why did we not question harder?
MOYERS: The government was scathing in its criticism. I mean, it not only attacked Gilligan, it attacked the management you and your colleagues there. Why this intensity of attack? They didn't give up. They didn't just issue a criticism.
DYKE: I think you have to look at the personalities involved. Andrew Gilligan was, prior to this report, was one of our journalists who was reporting from Iraq. The government of the day, the Blair government, didn't want us to stay in Iraq and report.
They complained bitterly that our reporting wasn't fair because we were being controlled by the Iraqis. Which I mean, just wasn't true. But, you know governments at a time of war want to control what's broadcast. That is not the job of the BBC.
MOYERS: You defended your reporter Andrew Gilligan; you personally defended him. Had you seen the report?
DYKE: I'd read the report obviously. I'd listened to it; it's a radio report. I'd listened to the report. But the attack on us was so much of a widespread, and just on that report. And then what we were attacked for was having an anti-war agenda. That was the attack.
MOYERS: And this gave them the ammunition to broaden the front?
DYKE: Yeah. Now, actually if you go back today and look what Andrew Gilligan said, and you take it apart, bit by bit, I think what we now know is that most of what he said was right.
MOYERS: He says that. He says, "Most of my story was right." But, of course in such a time, that's not enough. Is it, for journalists?
DYKE: Well, it's not enough for most of it to be right. It should all be right. But, he was reporting a source of somebody who had been involved in writing the dossier. And who had told him that there was deep concern inside the security services the way their information was being used. Well, that's commonplace now, isn't it? That's what happening over here, the same discussion.
MOYERS: In this country, we've suffered in journalism considerably from, you know, lying journalists. Stephen Glass of THE NEW REPUBLIC. Jayson Blair, THE NEW YORK TIMES. Now the fellow Kelly from USA TODAY. Do you think the British government was trying to make Andrew Gilligan into a Jayson Blair, a Stephen Glass?
DYKE: Well, again, go back to what Gilligan did. Gilligan reported what Dr. Kelly had told him.
MOYERS: The scientist.
DYKE: The scientist. He reported what he told him. British law allows a broadcast organization, a journalistic organization, to report that as long as it's accurate and fair and it needs to give the other side the opportunity to reply. Now, the Hutton Report implied that, no, that wasn't the case. You had to have corroboration.
Well, your chances of getting corroboration from a — when you're actually talking about a security source — are nil. And yet what was raised by Dr. Kelly needed to be raised and needed to be put into public agenda. Now that we might not have done it as well as we should have done is not the point. The point is what can Dr. Kelly said needed to be put into the public agenda. It was part of the proper public debate about the war.
MOYERS: Was it Dr. Kelly who used the term "sexed up"? Or was it your reporter?
DYKE: I think what was established was our reporter put the term to him and he then used it. In other words, so you would say, "It was sexed up?" "Yes, it was sexed up."
MOYERS: Do you think that the government would have been less affective in its attack if Dr. Kelly, the source, had not ultimately taken his life? Did that add a drama?
DYKE: The story would have disappeared. Yeah, the story would have, I mean, it would have been a pretty big row. But, the story would have gone away.
MOYERS: My sense is you may have saved Tony Blair in the sense that when the government came down on you so hard. And it was shown that there had been some mismanagement or some not quite accurate reporting. That this gave him a life raft.
DYKE: Except the public didn't believe it. If you look at all the figures, the public didn't believe the Hutton Report.
MOYERS: They believed you?
DYKE: Yeah. They believed… they heard the evidence themselves. This was an inquiry that was done in open public. And they didn't believe what Hutton then said.
MOYERS: Polls show that?
DYKE: Oh, yes. Overwhelmingly.
MOYERS: Anything happen since then to your viewership? Your listenership? Your audience?
DYKE: Well, the BBC's trust ratings have remained exactly the same. The government's have gone down. So, they've been going but I don't think you can put that the government's have been going down for quite some considerable time. I mean, Iraq has been a real issue in terms of trust for Tony Blair.
MOYERS: So what is your own journalistic assessment? You're free, now independent to say so. What is your own journalistic assessment? Did the American intelligence "sex up" and the British intelligence "sex up" the weapons of mass destruction? Or did Blair and Bush politically embellish intelligence to make a case for war? What's your own judgment?
DYKE: I suppose my own judgment is that governments increasingly run public relations machines to try to influence the public that their views are the right views. And I think in these circumstances, the public relations machine sexed up the documents.
MOYERS: The White House and 10 Downing Street?
DYKE: Yeah. I, well, I don't know but in terms of this particular dossier that we were involved in, yes, I have no doubt that the dossier was embellished or now, let's be fair. Everything that made the case for war was included. And everything that made the case against war wasn't.
MOYERS: The implication of that is that Blair and Bush made bloody commitments on the basis of, if not false, then unconfirmed evidence.
DYKE: Well, I think governments inevitably try to put across the best case for their policy. And that's what they were doing in this case. Now, whether you should do that with intelligence documents I think you have the discussion. There is an argument that if you're going to put out that sort of dossier it should have included the case for and the case against.
MOYERS: In a war, what is the role of an independent press?
DYKE: It can't be to just accept the basis for going to war, per se. It has to be to question that.
MOYERS: Is it's obligation to put on those who do question it?
DYKE: Yes, I mean, again I read some statistics. Here of the number of pundits, I don't know if you knew, who were used during the war. The number who were, who argued against the war were five or six out of hundreds and hundreds. Now in Britain, we were putting on people who argued quite consistently against the war.
MOYERS: And you were accused of being unpatriotic for that work? Or does your audience accept that? Does it want it?
DYKE: The audience is no problem. The politicians are the problem, as one saw. I mean, the audience, I think, are used to that. They expect it. The politicians in those circumstances think you're unpatriotic. I was here a bit during the war. And I was quite shocked by a lot of the reporting here during the war. It seemed to me that a lot of your commercial broadcasters had abandoned impartiality.
MOYERS: Yeah, some put on flags and wore them. Had flags behind them on the set.
DYKE: Sure. Now that would have been unthinkable in the UK. Unthinkable.
Remember there was a million people took to the streets of London to protest, you know, the war. This was a society completely split down the middle. And the BBC, in those circumstances had the duty to try to report both views. Now, of course the government of the day doesn't like that.
MOYERS: I read the transcript of the interview that your David Dimbleby did last year before the war in Iraq of our Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. Dimbleby was polite but he was persistent. Very tough questions. And as you can read from the transcript, Rumsfeld, he wasn't used to this kind of tough and tenacious questioning from an interviewer. Is that normal for the BBC?
DYKE: Oh yes, there was no doubt about that.
MOYERS: I mean…
DYKE: I mean by our standards, Dimbleby's interview of Rumsfeld was an ordinary interview. By Rumsfeld's standards, by his people's standards, they didn't think it was an ordinary interview at all. They weren't used to that sort of interview. They weren't used to people questioning Rumsfeld's role in Iraq before he was in government, and all those sorts of things. I mean, it's really… it's just a different approach to reporting.
MOYERS: But how do you explain it? It is different. But how do explain that he rolls over his interviewers in this country.
DYKE: I think you'd have to explain that to me rather than me to you. We are still quite surprised, I mean in Britain, the daily, the day-to-day questioning of politicians on radio and on television, particularly on radio, is tougher, I think, than it is here.
MOYERS: Do you sense a shadow falling across the future? I ask that because last year in this country during the war, the largest radio group in America actually used the air waves to organize pro-war rallies. That same radio group wants to come to the UK.
DYKE: I think if you come to the UK you have to live by UK regulation and UK rules and they're different from here. You know, Sky News…
DYKE: Murdoch's organization is a mile away from Fox News. Sky News is a perfectly good, perfectly well-produced, well-run, impartial broadcaster which I don't think you could say the same of Fox News. So I think it depends on the society and the rules that you have in that society.
MOYERS: But isn't there a communications bill before Parliament right now that would allow U.S. media companies to own whole chunks of electronic media?
DYKE: Yeah. There is… No, it's gone through. It got passed.
MOYERS: It did get passed?
DYKE: Yeah. It got passed.
MOYERS: Don't you think a change in standards follows that? Globalization equals Americanization equals dumbing down?
DYKE: I'm not sure. Well, everybody in every society is claiming that the media is dumbing down. I mean, the BBC gets accused of dumbing down all the time. Actually, I did a long analysis on it. Took our schedules from one month in '61, '71, '81 and '91 and 2001. Wanted just to demonstrate that it's just not true.
I mean, the danger is people getting old who think it was better life... was better than when what they were young. And they don't want to take on board new tastes, new, you know, of younger people. But I was pretty strongly against allowing American media companies to own big commercial media companies in the UK broadcasters.
First of all, it seemed to me it was ridiculous that we should give that away while a European media organization can't own a station in Cincinnati. Talk about a whole network. Secondly, I think there was always a danger, yep. I think there was always a danger, but actually in the end, it's harder to convince a Disney of the imperatives of a broadcaster in the UK than it is if it's owned in the UK. So I always think there was a doubt about whether that should go through.
MOYERS: Last year, during the war, the BBC television news that PBS stations carried enjoyed something like a 27 percent, 30 percent, in some markets 40 percent, increase in viewership.
DYKE: Yeah. And the same in radio.
MOYERS: Radio, too? How do you explain that?
DYKE: Uh-huh. I was getting e-mails and messages in London for a lot of people in America saying, "Thank you. Thank you for explaining or making some attempt to explain what is happening." That's the job of the BBC. That's what it's there for. That's why every so often it will end up in enormous bust-ups with government.
I remember us going out for dinner here with one of your, I won't say which one, but with a news organization from one of the major networks. And they said "if we've got a future, if we've got a future." And that was inconceivable 20 years ago, that the person who runs a major network is questioning whether there's a future for news.
Now the same thing is beginning to happen to the commercial sector in Britain. And that makes the BBC more important, not less important. 'Cause our funding, I mean, it's always difficult trying to explain our funding in the United States 'cause people can't believe that you can have public money too, you know, we charge everybody 121 pounds a year to have a television set. And that goes to the BBC. And yet we then challenge the government on a whole range of issues that a commercial broadcaster would never challenge them on.
MOYERS: What intrigues me is that that money does not come from the government. Seventeen percent of public television money comes from the government, but the license fee on a television set in Britain, which goes to the BBC, is not government money. That's consumer money, right?
DYKE: No. We collected, the BBC, I say we… The BBC collects the money. The government sets the level. That's all.
MOYERS: In the wake of the Hutton Report and the crisis last year, is the government going to try to pull the plug on that license fee?
DYKE: I doubt it. I doubt it. I think the government ended up a bit shaken by what happened in the sense that while Hutton came out down very much on their side, they didn't get the support of the population of Britain who supported the BBC. My guess is the government recognizes the importance of the BBC to Britain. Recognizes it's important in terms of both high culture but also popular culture. And will continue to support it for many years to come.
I mean, the problem the BBC faces is a more organized commercial opposition who want to push the BBC into being a much smaller organization. And yet this is the time when you need well-funded, we were the biggest collector, we're the biggest collector of televised news in the world, the BBC.
It is very important that the BBC remain well-funded and able to continue that role. But there are inevitably commercial pressures. Pressures from commercial organizations against that. I happen to believe that what we saw at the time of my, you call it resignation. When I left the BBC, what you saw was an awful lot of people in Britain objecting to the way they thought the BBC was being treated by the government. 'Cause the BBC represents them. And I think if you can sustain and retain that, then the threat doesn't matter. I think it's about the trust from the public. I mean, if the BBC hasn't got the trust of the public in Britain, there's no point having the BBC.
MOYERS: Greg Dyke, thank you for joining us on NOW.
DYKE: Thank you.