JOHN HUMPRHYS: The BBC is damaged beyond repair
Without serious reform, the BBC is damaged beyond repair: That’s what one of its greatest journalists says of the corporation – once a byword for integrity, impartiality and incorruptibility but whose reputation now lies in the gutter, says JOHN HUMPHRYS
This has been a great week for journalism.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking as you read that sentence.
Humphrys has finally lost it. Too many early mornings on Today and half a century of being on the front line of news reporting and presenting have finally taken their toll.
The poor chap obviously hasn’t been paying attention to what’s been going on.
In the past 48 hours the nation has been exposed to a litany of revelations that have shocked anyone with even a smidgeon of concern about the future of journalism in this great country.
The most sensational interview with the most famous woman of her time turns out to have been a terrible fraud.
Princess Diana had been led to the microphone by a rogue reporter who lied and lied and lied again. His bosses suspected the truth but used every device in the book to cover it up.
The BBC, which has stood for a century for all that is decent and honest about this country, has been dragged into the gutter.
When stories started to emerge that there might have been something seriously fishy about Bashir’s tactics we pricked up our ears. But sadly, that’s all most of us did
Yes. The BBC. The one institution we thought we could turn to for its impartiality and square dealing, its incorruptibility in the face of enormous pressures, its devotion to that most precious commodity in any decent society: the truth.
The BBC may be damaged beyond repair — all in the space of 48 hours.
A great week for journalism? Yes. And that’s because, quite simply, we know a great many things today that we did not know a few days ago.
Yesterday there was not a paper in the land that did not lead with the story of the Dyson report — something that would never have been published had it not been for good journalists doing their job.
People like the Mail’s Richard Kay, Sam Greenhill, Paul Revoir and Rebecca English, and the Mail on Sunday’s Nick Fielding and Jason Lewis.
They went after the truth and, when they uncovered it, these newspapers published it.
That, when everything else is stripped away, is what journalism is about. It is what journalists at the BBC should have been doing.
I include myself in that. There’s no real difference between those of us who practise our trade sitting behind a microphone in a nice warm radio studio and those out in the cold streets pounding the beat in hot pursuit of a grubby delinquent.
Nor is there any difference between us and our bosses. Or, rather, there shouldn’t be.
The BBC, which has stood for a century for all that is decent and honest about this country, has been dragged into the gutter
Before they became lofty dignitaries with secretaries and big offices, the news editors and heads of news and even all-powerful director-generals were hacks just like us.
Old-timers like me may boast about our humble beginnings aged 15 on the local rag.
While posh types like Tony Hall joined the BBC straight from the finest universities in the land, earmarked from their first day as candidates for the very top jobs — they were the chosen ones. But we were all hacks.
Or at least that’s how we should have seen ourselves.
The job of a journalist is easily described. It is to tell our readers, viewers and listeners what’s going on in the world and why.
It is to try to get behind the messages that those in power want to deliver. To examine their motives.
To seek out the facts. And, when we uncover the truth, to report it.
Unvarnished. Without fear or favour.
That’s all. Everything else is icing on the cake.
And that’s why, when I read Lord Dyson’s report and watched John Ware’s excellent documentary that was finally broadcast on Thursday night, I felt uncomfortable.
I had failed.
Not only me, but all my colleagues on the BBC’s vast journalistic staff who might, just might, have had an inkling that there was something not quite right about how Martin Bashir managed to get the interview that every single one of us would have sold our grannies for.
But journalism is a competitive business. There’s only one front page of a newspaper and only one top interview leading a news programme.
We might congratulate our colleague who beats us to it, but it will be through gritted teeth.
We want it to be ours. And Bashir had risen from relative obscurity to become the most famous reporter in the land. An overnight sensation.
Of course there was a touch of jealousy. Resentment even. Why him and not me? Undeserved maybe, but you don’t have to be a saint to be a hack.
So when stories started to emerge that there might have been something seriously fishy about Bashir’s tactics we pricked up our ears. But sadly, that’s all most of us did.
It had come hot on the heels of another piece of lamentable journalism — the BBC’s failure to identify a man who really was guilty of paedophilia: Jimmy Savile
We had a defence of sorts. After all, our programme’s editors were being told by their bosses that there was ‘nothing of interest’ in the stories.
Which is what they, in turn, were being told too by their bosses. The ones at the very top.
We know now, thanks to Lord Dyson, that those stories were not just interesting: they were devastating.
But worse — far worse — was how the man at the very top of BBC News, Tony Hall, had been dealing with them.
When it became apparent that keeping schtum and hoping it might all go away was no longer an option, the BBC’s top investigative reporter John Ware was commissioned to conduct his own inquiries and produce a Panorama special.
His work shed disturbing light on what Lord Dyson described as Tony Hall’s ‘woefully ineffective’ 1996 investigation.
Ware dug around in the attic of Richard Lindley, one of Panorama’s great reporters, who died two years ago.
Lindley had written a book on Panorama’s 50-year history in which he described a meeting between Hall, Anne Sloman — the acting head of BBC current affairs programmes — and John Birt, the BBC director- general at the time.
Ware found Lindley’s original notes of the meeting in which Sloman told him: ‘We concluded that faking documents had been going on as a general practice.’
She went further: ‘Our business creates monsters.’
Yet Ware says no evidence of Bashir having lied is mentioned in any of the documents written by Hall or Sloman that have surfaced.
Indeed, Hall even described Bashir as ‘honest… an honourable man’. He was neither.
Hall claimed he himself had been ‘open and transparent with the [then] director-general and with colleagues on the board of management and I believe I gave them all the key facts… throughout I discharged my responsibilities in good faith’.
Lord Dyson found otherwise.
He said in his report that Hall had presented facts to both the board of management and the board of governors ‘as if they were uncontroversial… And yet he knew (but did not tell the board) that they derived from Mr Bashir’s uncorroborated version of the facts and that Mr Bashir had lied on three occasions on a matter of considerable importance.’
Lord Hall himself now accepts that ‘our investigation 25 years ago into how Panorama secured the interview with Princess Diana fell well short of what was required.
The BBC was in massive trouble because of a Newsnight programme in 2012 which alleged that a distinguished Tory politician, Lord McAlpine, had been abusing children. A more serious charge is hard to imagine — but it was all rubbish
In hindsight, there were further steps we could and should have taken following complaints about Martin Bashir’s conduct.’
That’s one way of putting it.
Another is that for 25 years the BBC either evaded questions about the behaviour of Bashir or gave misleading answers.
As Ware reports, BBC managers buried not only the 1995 production files of the interview but also the management files of the investigation by Hall in 1996. In the end, they came back to haunt them.
There is something of an irony here. Hall himself might not have been director-general had it not been for an interview I did with his predecessor George Entwistle.
As with Hall, the issue has been one of accountability — the BBC’s accountability to the public.
What Entwistle did was break the rule followed by generations of big bosses — not just at the BBC but at most great corporations. The rule that says: if at all possible… let someone else take the heat.
The BBC was in massive trouble because of a Newsnight programme in 2012 which alleged that a distinguished Tory politician, Lord McAlpine, had been abusing children.
A more serious charge is hard to imagine — but it was all rubbish.
It had come hot on the heels of another piece of lamentable journalism — the BBC’s failure to identify a man who really was guilty of paedophilia: Jimmy Savile.
The BBC had a lot to answer for and an awful lot of explaining to do.
When I reported for duty at 4am on that Saturday morning in November 2012, I expected to be told the BBC had issued a statement.
Instead, my clearly stunned overnight editor told me I’d be interviewing the director-general. Live. He wasn’t half as stunned as me.
The interview was a disaster for Entwistle. He knew he had effectively fallen down on the job and as the clock ticked very slowly away he also knew he was doomed.
When he left the studio he reached across the microphone, gave me a wry smile and shook my hand. Six hours later his resignation was announced. Tony Hall took over.
Entwistle had done the honourable thing.
It had cost him his job but his resignation may have taken the sting out of the vicious public reaction to the BBC’s failed journalism.
Tony Hall appeared to believe that cover-up was the right strategy. He has been proved wrong.
If history teaches anything, it is that the deliberate cover-up of a scandal is invariably more damaging than the scandal itself.
Richard Nixon could have told Tony Hall that. He became the first president in the history of the United States to resign, because of the Watergate cover-up.
The presidency survived. Can the BBC survive?
That question has been asked several times in my 50 years at the BBC and the Entwistle interview has not been the only time I’ve been at the centre of the crisis.
Probably the most dangerous was an interview I did with journalist Andrew Gilligan in which he said the Blair government had ‘sexed up’ the infamous dossier claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
The fallout was devastating. Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell turned all the Government’s firepower on the BBC.
The inquiry set up by Blair led to the resignation of both chairman Gavyn Davies and director-general Greg Dyke.
That inquiry came to be seen as a whitewash and all the claims in the infamous dossier were ultimately shown to be false.
The man in charge of BBC News at the time, Richard Sambrook, made a crucial point some years later.
It was the BBC’s job, he said, to ‘shine light in dark places’ but he added this caveat: ‘You can only do it if you have the courage of your convictions — if you have done your journalism properly — and if you are properly able to weigh up the consequences of your actions.
‘If the BBC is weak, or lacking in confidence, or isn’t sure about its editorial judgments and methods, then it runs the risk of being pushed around… of losing independence in all but name.’
But as Sambrook acknowledged: ‘There is a limit to the BBC’s independence. Some would call it public accountability.
‘It is a wonderful news organisation. It does some fantastic journalism every day. But there is a limit to it.’
The BBC’s independence is always potentially under threat — especially when the government of the day is coming under serious pressure on different fronts.
The struggling Labour government of the 1970s wanted to ‘do something’ about the BBC and Cabinet records show it considered getting rid of the licence fee and making its financing part of general government expenditure.
That would effectively turn it into a state broadcaster.
The licence fee is under threat today and not just because of Netflix and Amazon.
A group of 128 British authors, actors, editors and filmmakers have just written an open letter warning that ‘political and financial attacks’ threaten its future.
The licence fee has never been under greater political pressure. And here’s the irony.
We need an independent, trusted, accountable national broadcaster as never before.
Trustworthy journalism is being replaced in too many lives by extreme groups who use social media to push their dangerous rubbish on a gullible but growing section of the population.
In short, we need a BBC we can trust. And we need newspapers to warn us if it betrays that trust.
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