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Breakfast with Frost
On Sunday 06 July, 2003 , BBC Breakfast with Frost Interview: Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture
Tessa Jowell MP, Secretary of State for Culture

PETER SISSONS:

The row between the BBC and Downing Street will come to a head tomorrow when MPs publish the conclusions of their investigation into the government's case for the war in Iraq.

As we heard earlier, claims that an official dossier was doctored to exaggerate Iraq's military capability have been denounced by the Prime Minister who said in a newspaper interview that they amounted to a serious attack on his integrity. BBC governors are meeting later today, as we've said, to investigate how its journalists handled the story but the outcome of the MPs' deliberations could reopen question about who regulates the BBC and how.

Well the Cabinet minister responsible for broadcasting, Tessa Jowell, joins us now. Tessa, good morning.

TESSA JOWELL: Good morning.

PETER SISSONS: Now how will things go for the BBC when the select committee reports? Can you guarantee that the government won't be tempted into a bout of vindictiveness, licence fee, charter renewal and all that.

TESSA JOWELL: Well I can absolutely promise that whatever the outcome tomorrow, charter review which will start next year, the new charter hopefully in place by the end of 2006, that that process will be a process which focuses on the role of the BBC in 21st century, the role of the BBC as part of a bigger broadcasting ecology.

PETER SISSONS: But do I detect a veiled threat from Tony Blair in the newspapers this morning? He says it's the most serious attack on him and so on, "The charge is wrong the BBC should accept it." Will if the Prime Minister says that the BBC has to look to its independence doesn't it? Have to look him in the eye if they feel they're right.

TESSA JOWELL: Well I think the point about the BBC's independence is, is central to this question. Where we are is that there is a very serious allegation made about the government, about the Prime Minister, about No.10 Downing Street, and the allegation is this: that against the wishes, and against the advice of the intelligence services, No.10 Downing Street insisted on inserting information into the dossier that was published last September, against the advice of the intelligence services. Now that has been systematically repudiated and refuted by No.10.

PETER SISSONS: But we don't -

TESSA JOWELL: The question is, this is an allegation, and the question to the BBC is, you know, you can't go round just making these allegations -

PETER SISSONS: Well -

TESSA JOWELL: Unless you believe them to be true.

PETER SISSONS: Well exactly.

TESSA JOWELL: So the question to the BBC is, is this allegation true?

PETER SISSONS: A senior BBC official, quoted on the front page of the Sunday Telegraph, says "Greg will tell the governors this afternoon, in no uncertain terms, that if there is any attempt to retreat from the story, or to apologise for what has been said, it will be the end of BBC News. It's do or die."

TESSA JOWELL: Well I read that story in the Sunday Telegraph and I think it's a great pity that Greg is digging himself, or appears to be, digging himself in in that way. If what is reported, if what is reported is true, - if he actually said that - the point is, a very serious allegation - an allegation - has been made by the BBC. The BBC have a constitutional responsibility to the accuracy and impartiality of its news coverage. The BBC is not in a position simply to make allegations unless it's absolutely clear that those allegations are true. And that's what we want to get to the bottom of.

PETER SISSONS: (OVERLAPS) The BBC would agree with you.

TESSA JOWELL: And, you know, on the basis of, you know, we'll get the Foreign Affairs committee report tomorrow, but on the basis of all the evidence which has been published, the hearings that have been published so far, it is very clear that that claim has been repudiated.

PETER SISSONS: Is, is -

TESSA JOWELL: It is not do or die for the BBC. The BBC should say "We made a mistake, we regret it." And then everybody can move on. That is the point. And it underlines -

PETER SISSONS: But if the BBC - but if the BBC is not going to do that, can life go on as normal? Can the governors put out of their mind any considerations such as now we're going to get the charter, will the licence fee go up as much as we want, will the licence fee be in existence in ten years time? I mean can you separate out from acts that would bring the BBC, as you see it, into line.

TESSA JOWELL: Yes of course. I mean there is, what, I mean there's no question of, you know, the government seeking to bring the BBC into line. You know the, the central issue here is the onus on the BBC to say whether or not this damaging - most damaging - allegation, which reflects on the Prime Minister, is true or not. That is the central issue and why is it so important? It's important because the BBC in our country is different. You know, when you go out, I go out, anybody else goes out and buys their newspaper in the morning, we know that we're buying opinion. We don't read, you know, we don't believe that everything we read is a matter of fact. However, when people turn on their television sets, or their radios, and listen to the BBC, they expect that what they hear is true. And why do they expect that? Because the BBC's constitutional responsibility is for accuracy and impartiality of news coverage. That is the central tension. Now it is perfectly possible to separate this row now, which can be very shortly conceded, from the wider and absolutely crucial question of charter renewal for the BBC, the role of the BBC in modern broadcasting.

PETER SISSONS: Although Peter Stothard, who was sitting here earlier and did the fly on the wall with Tony Blair for 30 days, remarked on the huge hostility towards the BBC in the corridors of Downing Street when people are talking informally. And, you know, listening to Alistair Campbell spitting feathers before the select committee, I should imagine it's just as well for the BBC that he isn't culture secretary.

TESSA JOWELL: Well look, I mean I, I just don't accept that. Of course, you know, this is a time when emotions are highly charged, feelings - you know, there's a real sense of anger about the, about this, the damage that this allegation can cause and, you know, the apparent refusal of the BBC to say whether or not the allegation is true or not. But that doesn't affect the fact that, you know, the Prime Minister, you know right across government, there is the highest regard for the best of BBC journalism. That is the important point.

PETER SISSONS: Well we could go on but let's talk about the Olympic bid for a minute or two and then perhaps the Lottery. Did you try to find a British person to spear London's bid?

TESSA JOWELL: Well we went out to look for the best person and, you know, we're, I believe that in Barbara Cassani, who is the, who will chair our bid for the Olympics in 2012, that she is the best person.

PETER SISSONS: And Jacques Rogge, who was sitting here, says David Beckham, come off it, you know, you've got Sir Steve Redgrave who's actually won five Olympic gold medals. Wouldn't it be he, he would be the best ambassador?

TESSA JOWELL: I think there's a bit of, I think there's a bit of misunderstanding about this. We will have a number of people, Barbara Cassani, the bid team will appoint a number of people to act as ambassadors, to go round the world at the point of which lobbying in support of London can start, which is round about the Athens Olympics next year. And, you know, David Beckham is one name. I'm quite sure that over the months ahead we'll see our newspapers full of speculation about other athletes. There will be, there will be -

PETER SISSONS: So, so you wouldn't mind giving, seeing Steve Redgrave in as well?

TESSA JOWELL: Oh absolutely not. You know, he's been a fantastic supporter of the Olympic bid and, you know, he's an icon for young people in this country and he's an embodiment of what the Olympic ideal represents.

PETER SISSONS: A pretty luke warm response to your proposals of shaking up the Lottery. You know, the damage seems to have been done by some of the unpopular causes that lottery money has benefited. Can you guarantee from now on that people power will prevail when determining who gets the money?

TESSA JOWELL: Well first of all I don't know why you say that the response is luke warm. I think the response was, you know, very strongly supportive of the measures that we set out this week, a new way of regulating and organising the lottery game, but also giving much more power and influence about the way in which lottery money is spent back to the people of this country. It is after all not the government's money, it is money that belongs to people in this country and it has transformed many of our towns, cities and communities in ways that sometimes we just take for granted.


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