The BBC's world affairs editor, John Simpson, this past week reportedly wrote to the Corporation's Board of Governors demanding that the BBC stop apologising for the David Kelly affair, and call off an internal disciplinary inquiry.

'Callum', a BBC world service news producer said he was worried that the BBC could be transformed from a public service into a state broadcaster.

"Journalists are now being limited to using the usual suspects as sources," he said. "People are more cautious and there is a tendency to rely on established sources of information, such as Westminster gossip."

The Short story

"With the Clare Short story [that Kofi Annan's office was being bugged], the Westminster journalists covered it as a domestic issue. They did not lift their heads above the parapet and see the wider implications."

In the 1970s, a lesser US scandal led to the resignation of President Nixon. But in the post-Hutton climate, the BBC was running a potential disciplinary action against Clare Short as the reaction story, within 24 hours of the news breaking.

"The trouble is that if the stories get closer to Blair, people are frightened the issue will suddenly become one of, we have an anti-war agenda and this is the BBC trying to get revenge," Callum told Aljazeera.net.

Lord Hutton lambasted the BBC for a report by Andrew Gilligan questioning government claims that Iraq could dispatch WMD within 45 minutes.

Since then, BBC correspondents have complained of critical Iraq stories being driven off the news agenda.

Clarification

Lord Hutton has lambasted the
BBC for an Iraq report on WMDs

Flagship programmes such as Newsnight and The World This Weekend have issued egregious apologies to the government, and a 200-word "clarification" was read out on the Today programme, after a complaint by the defence secretary, Geoff Hoon.

It was Today which first broadcast the Andrew Gilligan story.

But not all BBC journalists feel pressurised. An insider at Television Centre told Aljazeera.net that they had not experienced any particular changes since Lord Hutton reported his findings.

"In the newsroom, the only real difference now is that we are being more cautious in terms of getting things checked," he said.

"I'd feel we had to be careful and make damn sure to get a story right [before broadcasting]. If that means we don't get the story out as quickly, that might be the net result."

Self-censorship

"Journalists are now being limited to using the usual suspects as sources. People are more cautious and there is a tendency to rely on established sources of information, such as Westminster gossip."

'Callum'
BBC world service news producer

Some veteran reporters believe that "caution" can all too easily become a euphemism for self-censorship.

Tim Llewellyn, the BBC's Middle East correspondent between 1976 and 1992, said that its coverage of the region was already showing signs of "temerity and timidity".

"Self-censorship is always the biggest danger in the BBC. It is the way that governments and commercial interests put the frighteners on until journalists behave with an inbuilt caution," he told Aljazeera.net.

"The BBC is not an organisation where great diktats come down from above. It is one where people sense how they should behave."

"At a time when there is a lot of pressure we are already seeing, especially in reporting of the Palestinian issue, how dismal and biased its take on the story can be."

Shock wave

More than a thousand BBC staff
have walked out in support of Dyke

"The great danger," he added, "is that there will be a shock wave through the BBC and it will behave like a dog that has been kicked, and cower under the table."

In the aftermath of Lord Hutton's blow to the BBC's self-image, the corporation's Director General Greg Dyke and the Chairman of its Board of Governors, Gavin Davies both resigned. The acting chairman Lord Ryder then upset many staff members with a "grovelling" apology to the government.

"It seemed to be craven and unnecessary," Callum said. "The BBC had already issued its apologies and this was seen as a kowtowing gesture too far."

More than a thousand BBC journalists and production staff walked out in support of Greg Dyke, but anger with the governors was not far beneath the surface.

"They know very little about broadcasting," said Callum. "It was their failure to ask the right questions last summer which got us into the mess in the first place. It was their overreaction to the criticism that compounded it later. If they had exercised proper oversight, David Kelly might still be alive today."

The governors' unofficial explanation for the apology was that their role as future regulators of the corporation was at stake in the run-up to the review of the BBC's Royal Charter in 2007.

Conflict of interest

"The BBC has massive public support because it is part of the cultural life of the nation. It should be classed alongside libraries and museums and seen as a crucial way of cultivating new ideas and thought. It is there to innovate. If it looks like everything else, there is no point in having it."

Dr Greg Philo,
Glasgow University Media Group

Of itself though, this merely posed other questions about the conflict of interest in the Board's role as defender and regulator of the same corporation.

With a switch-over from analogue to subscription-based digital television scheduled to be completed by 2012, the future of the BBC is up for grabs, and the Murdoch empire is visibly licking its lips.

Dr Greg Philo of the Glasgow University Media Group said that the Australian media magnate was the greatest threat to independent broadcasting in the UK. But only because of Greg Dyke's decision to hive "high brow" programming off to digital TV and pack the mainstream terrestrial schedules with light entertainment shows.

"A free marketer like Rupert Murdoch would say 'well if you can satisfy these so-called quality cultural requirements in a channel which costs you £35 million a year, why not do that and sell the rest off,' because it looks like every other channel anyway."

Public support

"The BBC has massive public support because it is part of the cultural life of the nation. It should be classed alongside libraries and museums and seen as a crucial way of cultivating new ideas and thought. It is there to innovate. If it looks like everything else, there is no point in having it."

Poll findings since late January consistently show that most Britons still trust the BBC more than the government, and view Lord Hutton's report as a whitewash.

Even so, a Conservative party report last month called for the BBC TV licence system to be phased out in favour of a subscription-based service, before the 2012 switch over to digital.

"Beyond the charter" also proposed abolishing the BBC's Board of Governors, divesting TV production and distribution and creating a new Public Broadcasting Authority.

It received a muted response but industry watchers believe the debate over the future shape of one of the world's biggest news providers may just be beginning.