BBC: A Disaster Waiting to Happen

The double-barrelled scandal which has now engulfed Auntie – first the horrible revelations about Jimmy Savile, then the accusations of child abuse which emerged from a poorly-crafted report on Newsnight  - are not going to lead to the closure of the BBC; but they may well lead to the stifling of some its better journalism, which will be everyone’s loss. And yet, had the warning signs been heeded, this could all have been avoided.

I can identify three main reasons why the BBC has come such a cropper over all this. One can argue over the order in which they should be listed, but there can be no doubt that each has played a part.

I’ll start with the external factor: the pressure put on news organisations by 24-hour news. When I joined the BBC in 1988, news was a much simpler business. As a broadcaster we had set times for news bulletins, and it would take only a story of massive proportions to break into the schedule otherwise. (One such occasion was the resignation as Prime Minister of Margaret Thatcher in 1990; I still remember it well as it knocked off air one of my programmes!) Newspapers, too, knew that they had set deadlines to meet for each edition; there was a pause after the final edition went out – called “putting the ‘paper to bed” – before it all started up again a few hours later.

The spread of the internet stopped all that. Now, you don’t have to wait for the news bulletin or newspaper to find out what’s going on in the world. Any news organisation which doesn’t have on its website the latest news as soon as it is known simply won’t last; people will look elsewhere for their news. (And yet, extraordinary as it may seem now, I remember in the early 1990’s being on a BBC training course for staff from all over the Corporation when a colleague from BBC Bristol complained bitterly that the BBC had started a website, as this was going to take away funds from the regional broadcasting arms of the BBC. His argument was, “we’re a broadcaster; why do we need to be on the internet?”)

Around the same time came an event which was – depending on your point of view – a blessing or a curse for news: the Gulf War of 1991. The BBC and others suddenly awoke to the fact that there was only one global, 24-hour news channel, CNN, which could report every development as and when it happened. This kick-started plans which had until then only been vaguely discussed that the BBC should have its own global, 24-hour news channel Some within the Corporation protested loudly that it was all very well having a channel like that during a war or other crisis, but what does such a channel report when there is no big, rolling story? News was about to start making itself.

I realised the absurd and potentially dangerous levels that this was reaching even before I left the BBC at the end of 2004. I don’t remember what the news story was (a sort of modern, digital-age equivalent of the old tale that yesterday’s news is today’s wrapping for fish and chips – fish and chips always used to come wrapped in old newspaper) but the Head of Newsgathering sent round an excited e-mail to all staff in our particular department of the BBC congratulating those who had got the previous day’s big story on TV, “30 seconds ahead of Sky!”

A number of us questioned the logic behind the excitement. Who, apart from television executives who have in their offices a bank of televisions tuned to different channels, would possibly have had any idea that the BBC beat Sky to the broadcast by 30 seconds? And, in any case, wasn’t the BBC’s mission with the news to be accurate, informative and trustworthy, not simply the first to tell the story? The die had been cast.

As a result of this new striving to be “first” with the news, as opposed to being the most accurate, standards slipped. Those of us in World Service who still believed in the principles of “two sources” and “the second pair of eyes” were considered dinosaurs. “Two sources” meant that, unless a story had been reported by a BBC journalist (who was trusted to apply this best practice) the Newsroom would wait until having a story confirmed by two sources, such as Reuters and Associated Press, before broadcasting it. “The second pair of eyes” meant that if you were writing a scripted piece for broadcast (as opposed to an interview) you would have someone else read through what you had written to ensure that it made sense and that it was grammatically correct. Old-fashioned? Perhaps. But it made it far less likely that a mistake would be broadcast.

It didn’t take a huge step for these lower standards for news to spread to areas such as documentaries; after all, the two genres are created by the same journalists. But a direct consequence of such a mentality is the Newsnight report which has caused the current scandal: basic journalistic good practice of checking sources and ensuring the story stands up have been ignored.

The other two reasons behind the mess in which the BBC now finds itself are less easy to explain or forgive, because they are directly of Auntie’s own making. TV journalists in particular (and some radio journalists) tend to be a rather arrogant lot. I have always said that to be a successful broadcaster you have to have a larger than normal ego; if you don’t get a buzz out of seeing or hearing yourself on air, then you’re in the wrong job. Unfortunately, though, this leads some to adopt an overly-inflated opinion of themselves; and, once more, the journalism suffers.

And the last piece of this rather unpleasant jigsaw which has seen the BBC so humiliated is that there has long been the wry comment made within the Corporation that BBC bosses tend to be promoted to a point two levels above their level of competency; two levels because when it’s realised that they’re not competent for the post they are in, it’s easier to remove them upwards. Sacking staff – especially senior staff – has always been a problem for the BBC, going back to its, “job for life”, Civil Service-style roots. The list of sackable offences at the BBC was always short. Stealing from the Corporation or having sex on BBC premises were the two that stood out. Being an incompetent boss was not on the list.

The problem is that, unless you are a star presenter (in which case you come off the staff and set up as a private company, demanding and receiving huge financial rewards), you hit the pay ceiling for journalists or technicians early. If you want to earn more money, you have to go into management. But being a first-rate reporter or producer or studio manager does not make you a good manager; indeed, the chances are that you have no idea how to manage. And the examples of managers around you are people who have been in a similar position. It is a self-perpetuating recipe for managerial incompetence on a large scale.

It would be encouraging to think that this current mess would lead the BBC to look closely at itself and emerge from it stronger and wiser, with standards of journalism restored to the highest level, so that once again the BBC would shine out like a beacon to be emulated. But it won’t turn out like this. Incompetent managers will take fright and simply throttle good journalism because they will be too frightened to take risks. What they don’t understand is that if the principles of good journalism are firmly in place – such as checking sources properly before broadcast and not rushing to be the first on air – then the BBC is still best placed to be the world’s number one place to go for reliable, objective and well-reported news.