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Last Updated: Thursday, 10 May 2007, 10:49 GMT 11:49 UK
The Blair government and the BBC
By Torin Douglas
Media correspondent, BBC News

All prime ministers fall out with the BBC at some point.

Greg Dyke, mobbed after his resignation in 2004
BBC staff staged protests after Greg Dyke resigned as director general
But Tony Blair's row with the corporation over the Iraq war was one of the most spectacular and traumatic in the broadcaster's history.

The battle over the events leading up to the Hutton Report - involving Andrew Gilligan, Dr David Kelly and Alastair Campbell - cost the BBC both its chairman and director-general.

The Hutton Report destabilised the corporation, leaving it leaderless at a time when its whole future was being reviewed by the government.

Within minutes of Greg Dyke's resignation as director general, its acting chairman had issued an unreserved apology, leaving many in the BBC and outside seeking reassurance that its board wasn't weakening the all-important commitment to independence from government.

Rarely had the complex relationship between the BBC and the government of the day looked quite so exposed.

Assured performances

Yet when Mr Blair became prime minister in 1997, few would have predicted he would preside over such a spectacular breakdown of that relationship.

He was a master of the media, both personally and professionally - articulate, charming and confident in his interviews, and highly effective in the system he set up for handling newspapers and broadcasters.

Jonathan Ross
A reported 18m deal for Jonathan Ross was branded as excessive
That assurance was seen in the first few months of the administration, following the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, when Mr Blair, advised by Mr Campbell and his pollster Philip Gould, caught the nation's mood in a way the Royal Family did not.

The BBC, as the national broadcaster, reflected that mood in reporting the events of that astonishing week in 1997, culminating in its day-long coverage of the funeral of the "People's Princess".

But the seeds of the row between the Blair government and the BBC had already been sown - in the system for handling the media, created when Labour was in opposition by Mr Campbell and Peter Mandelson.

Faced with a press traditionally hostile to Labour, they wooed Rupert Murdoch and won his newspapers' backing.

They also played hardball with journalists who didn't follow their line.

And when New Labour's long honeymoon came to an end, and people started questioning the government's decisions, the BBC's independence became irksome.

'Strong' BBC

The Iraq war divided the nation and such moments always cause problems for the national broadcaster.

Some argue that the BBC has been "cowed" as a result of the Hutton Report and the events of 2004.

Mark Thompson and Michael Grade
Michael Grade (r) was appointed as chairman after the Hutton Report
They point to a new system of complaints and governance, which gives greater weight to the views of its critics and competitors.

The new BBC Trust takes a more independent line than the old BBC board of governors in curbing the ambitions of the corporation's management. It has a duty to represent licence-payers and to consider the views of the BBC's commercial rivals.

But few could argue that Tony Blair has taken revenge on the BBC, as some feared he might in the immediate aftermath of the Hutton Report.

Throughout the review of the BBC's Charter, the mantra of Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell was that they wanted "a strong BBC, independent of government" - and she and her ministers seemed to mean it.

This was confirmed by the appointment of Michael Grade as the BBC's chairman in the immediate aftermath of the Hutton affair.

He was the antithesis of a government placeman and the decision was widely applauded by politicians and broadcasters alike, a fact not changed by his subsequent defection to run ITV.

The fact that Mrs Jowell recommended his appointment, and Downing Street approved it, showed ministers really did want to put the row behind them.

New services

The BBC has also been given a new 10-year Charter which will be funded by the licence fee throughout that period - hardly an act of revenge by the prime minister.

Though part of the price was the new tougher system of regulation, headed by the BBC Trust, few now argue that the old board of governors should have been allowed to continue. And the changes don't go nearly as far as the BBC's critics were seeking.

Tessa Jowell
Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell renewed the BBC's 10-year Charter
As for the licence-fee settlement, it is true that the BBC has not got what it asked for over the next six years, and is now facing substantial cutbacks.

An above-inflation agreement was always going to be hard to justify - and was strongly opposed by the Treasury under Gordon Brown.

But the reason the BBC and its supporters even considered the possibility was because of the generous deal awarded by the Blair government in 2000.

That gave the BBC an above-inflation settlement for seven years, to help fund its new digital television and internet services.

It happened to coincide with an advertising slump, which meant that in relative terms the BBC became much stronger, aggravating its commercial rivals.

Despite the traumatic row over Mr Gilligan, Dr Kelly, Iraq and Lord Hutton, the BBC at the end of Mr Blair's 10 years as prime minister is bigger and better-funded than when he came into power - and it is still broadcasting programmes the government doesn't like.

It remains to be seen how Gordon Brown will get on with the BBC if, as expected, he becomes the next prime minister.




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