One person I have been feeling a little sorry for over the past few days is Charles Moore, editor of the Daily Telegraph. His newspaper was a fervent supporter of the war against Iraq. I think we may say that it was motivated entirely by ideological concerns. There was no commercial benefit for the Telegraph in taking an aggressively pro-American line. Indeed, I believe many of its readers may have been disquieted. But the Telegraph never wavered. Before, during and after the war it has offered a strong case for taking on Saddam Hussein.
All Mr Moore's instincts of decency will have been aroused by the suicide of Dr David Kelly. In normal circumstances the paper would have cheerfully joined any posse hunting down the likes of Geoff Hoon, Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair. Mr Moore will have understood the depths to which this government has sunk. The trouble is that the Telegraph has castigated the BBC for what it regards as its subversive reporting of the war. Moreover, the newspaper shares the government's conviction that Iraq did possess weapons of mass destruction. On important questions of principle, therefore, the Daily Telegraph finds itself in the same camp as the government. If it were to attack Messrs Campbell, Hoon and Blair with full gusto, it would inevitably align itself with those anti-war forces which it has criticised, and risk damaging the war party which it has helped to lead.
To my way of thinking, the Telegraph has been mistaken in its strong espousal of war, and will probably be proved wrong about weapons of mass destruction. But no one could argue that its position has been ignoble. The same cannot be said of the Times over the past few days, or of its sister newspaper, the Sun. Like the Telegraph, both papers were enthusiastically in favour of the war. I do not impugn the motives of either of them. But since the death of Dr Kelly, they have slavishly promoted the government's case while looking around for any stick they can find with which to bash the BBC. It is very difficult to believe that they are animated purely by principle. There are also commercial considerations at work. I spy the influence of their proprietor, Rupert Murdoch.
Of course, there are fair-minded voices on the Times such as William Rees-Mogg and Simon Jenkins. But in recent days the news pages have been tendentious. The newspaper's political coverage is usually sympathetic to New Labour, and it was no surprise that the Times should have been one of the three titles which was led by the nose in some bizarre guessing game devised by the Ministry of Defence to the name of Dr Kelly. On Saturday, the day after his death, it was highly critical of the BBC. On an inside page the political reporter Tom Baldwin quoted friends of Alastair Campbell (aka Alastair Campbell) as saying that the Prime Minister's director of communications was 'genuinely shaken' and of the opinion that Dr Kelly's death showed that 'something has gone wrong with our political and media culture'. Mr Baldwin is a friend of Mr Campbell, who sometimes gives him stories. On Monday Mr Baldwin was in magisterial mood. 'The BBC,' he wrote, 'has a long and proud record of political impartiality but at times in this several-week row some BBC journalists have seemed to have abandoned objectivity.'
Unlike the Times, of course. On Monday its front-page headline was 'Relief for Blair as crisis engulfs the BBC'. On Tuesday its 'splash' asserted that divisions were emerging among BBC governors, a claim immediately denied by the BBC and not taken up by other newspapers. The same day, the Sun ran a first leader entirely devoted to the shortcomings of the BBC. In the paper's view, 'this is the time for a root-and-branch reorganisation of the news department of the BBC. A deep cultural revolution must be mounted now.' On a facing page the paper asked 'ten crucial questions', most of which were addressed to the BBC rather than to the government. The normally excellent Sky News (Sky is controlled by Rupert Murdoch) was also sharply critical of the BBC on Sunday, after the Corporation had admitted that Dr Kelly was its main source. This was seen by Sky News – which was rewarded with an exclusive interview of Tony Blair in Seoul – as proof that the BBC was wrong. By contrast, the coverage of the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times was in places hostile to the government.
Of course the BBC has not behaved perfectly. Andrew Gilligan will have to persuade Lord Hutton's inquiry that he did not overegg his story about Alastair Campbell personally 'sexing up' last September's dossier. Dr Kelly was not strictly an intelligence source, as the BBC had alleged, though as Britain's greatest expert on Iraq's biological weapons he was as authoritative a source as any intelligence expert could have been. But we do not have to love the BBC, or wish to defend its conduct in every respect, in order to be suspicious of the coverage it has received in the Murdoch media.
Rupert Murdoch hates the BBC. We know that. He hates the privileges it enjoys. He hates the very principle of public-service broadcasting. It suggests there might be forces in the world other than the market which should determine what people should be shown. So to some degree his newspapers have simply sided with a government they mostly support against an organisation they always deprecate. But I think there is more to it than that. The Communications Bill has now completed its passage through the Lords, and should receive royal assent this autumn. Despite valiant attempts by Lord Puttnam and others, Rupert Murdoch has not been disbarred from acquiring Channel 5, which it is assumed he wants to do. An amendment has been introduced which means that if a bid for Channel 5 raises 'a specified public interest concern in relation to media plurality' the Department of Trade can refer the matter to Ofcom. But even if Ofcom recommends that a bid be blocked, the final decision will be left with the Secretary of State. I cannot imagine that Mr Murdoch is too worried about that.
You can't really blame him. He just wants to own everything and affect everything. It is his editors – and not the Tom Baldwins of this world – who are most at fault. An awful thought occurred to me the other day as I recalled how, when Peter Stothard was editor of the Times, he vehemently opposed the appointment of Greg Dyke as director-general of the BBC. The reason given, which I perhaps naively accepted, was that Mr Dyke was a New Labour donor. But did Mr Murdoch in fact see that, for all his reputation as a dumber-downer, Mr Dyke had the skills to revive and strengthen the BBC? Was my old friend, while cloaking himself in a noble cause, serving a base one? We have seen again over these past few days how Mr Murdoch's editors are prepared to put their master's commercial interest above the public one.