The BBC is the world’s biggest news broadcaster, employing more than 2,000 journalists at 57 bases. In times of crisis, the nation still turns automatically to its output. During the first two weeks of the Iraq war, 93 per cent of the population watched, heard or clicked on to BBC news. The conventional wisdom is that the David Kelly affair is something this otherwise unassailable news giant somehow “tripped over”, as Gavyn Davies, the now departed chairman of the corporation’s governors, put it in his evidence to Lord Hutton. But it is not so.
With a blinding flash, the Hutton inquiry presented us with an unexpected snapshot of what life is really like not just in Downing Street and Whitehall, but also in Broadcasting House and Television Centre. The picture of the government that emerged was none too pretty, but none too surprising either. Nowadays, few of us expect truth, honour or competence from our politicians. From the BBC, we have expected all those things and a great deal more. Yet Hutton’s flashgun revealed that its mighty news empire is caught in the grip of a crippling malaise, which made the Kelly catastrophe not a bit of bad luck, but an accident waiting to happen.
You have only to drop into a BBC hacks’ canteen to realise that something is wrong. Journalists who should be busily plotting their next scoop will probably be moaning instead. A debilitating fog of resentment has engulfed BBC News. So what are the complaints? Almost everything you can imagine.
Older journalists grumble that nowadays you have to be young; but many of their younger colleagues are eager to get out. Those who are either white or male (the vast majority) feel their paths are blocked, but those who are female or black usually feel patronised. Those who speak “BBC English” think this will be held against them, but those from the other side of the tracks believe they will never be trusted. One complaint seems to unite them all. The organisation for which they work does not seem to share their passion for reporting the news. It has too many other more important priorities.
The director general, Greg Dyke, famously worries that the BBC’s staff are “hideously white”. As editor-in-chief, how much does he worry about the quality of its news? It seems not to have been much of an issue. When Dyke got round to thinking about it, his main concern seems to have been that the corporation might have too many correspondents overseas. Why maintain bureaux in 44 countries when, after all, the public aren’t interested in foreign news, are they? Lord Hutton may have wondered what Dyke was doing in the weeks before he found time to listen to Andrew Gilligan’s fateful Today programme broadcast. His journalists, however, would have understood.
They know all too well that the top brass are very busy bees. They have politicians to schmooze, lobbyists to appease, management consciousness-raising away-breaks to organise, gender correctness issues to address and ratings to pore over. Which is not to say they do not make demands on their journalists. What they want from them is bigger audiences with better “demographics”. In the grim words of the BBC’s latest annual report: “Making news and current affairs more relevant to younger audiences is a continuing priority.”
In pursuit of this goal, the admired BBC2 series Correspondent has just been scrapped. The channel controller, Jane Root, feared that its distinguished, middle-aged reporters could alienate the young. The replacement series, This World, aims to avoid this error. The Sunday Times described its opener, on the Hell’s Angels, as “a slovenly and unremarkable cuttings job”. Last year, a review of political output imposed on an unwilling news division swept away respected if sober programmes such as On the Record and Despatch Box. In their places came kiddy-friendly, early Saturday morning politics shows that embarrassed even some of those who worked on them. The heavyweight current affairs flagship Panorama has long been consigned to a Sunday-night graveyard slot where there is no danger of it boring teenagers into rival broadcasters’ channels.
The demand for more exciting programmes sounds like a call for fireworks, risk-taking and adventure. Yet bosses also insist there must be no trouble. So would-be newsroom buccaneers find themselves weighed down by an ever-growing bundle of suffocating “guidelines” designed to keep their endeavours in check. Post-Hutton, yet more regulations are on the way. There is to be more “referring up” of sensitive reports and logging of contacts, while reporters not licensed as being sufficiently reliable will be barred from making speculative observations. Ominously, no less a figure than the chief of the World Service, Mark Byford, has been seconded to complaints management.
This lethal combination of hunger for sensation and reluctance to face up to its consequences led directly to Lord Hutton’s shocking verdict and the resignation of Gavyn Davies. Andrew Gilligan was hired from a Sunday paper to “sex up” the Today programme. Yet the programme’s informal, would-be popular style required him to extemporise his shock revelations. Unsurprisingly, he fluffed his lines. When challenged by No 10 to set the record straight, the BBC’s boss class mounted a blustering campaign to defend their corporate image, instead of seeking out the truth.
The damage this has all done to the BBC’s reputation has turned the newsroom malaise into a full-blown trauma. Journalists feel that the respect their work used to attract has been squandered. The official line that Gilligan’s story was right in its underlying thrust, if wrong on details, arouses particular fury. “It’s the story you tell that matters, not the one you should have told,” mutters a newsroom foot soldier. Comradeship is fraying under the strain. Panorama‘s account of the Kelly affair laid into the BBC’s managers and chairman, but also savaged Gilligan, whose mistake, unlike theirs, was at least made in the heat of the moment.
Why, oh why, has it come to this? It is natural to blame the fat cats at the top. Natural but wrong. Greg Dyke is a decent bloke, if, as we have learned, a little casual about his job. He was himself a good enough broadcast journalist in his day. Richard Sambrook, the director of news and everyone’s favourite fall guy, was guilty, mainly, of trusting his reporter. These people would do fine in a normal workplace, but the BBC today is a kind of madhouse. It is easy to smile at its excesses as they are chronicled in the Tory tabloids. Yet the corporate pratfalls they recount are no more accidental than the Kelly affair. They reflect a conflict at the heart of our national broadcaster which is bringing it to its knees.
The BBC is obliged to continue to proclaim that its gods are truth, creativity and understanding. But it has actually become a vast corporate nightmare ineluctably committed to the pursuit of institutional advantage above all else. What Hutton revealed is that there is little to choose between Downing Street and Broadcasting House, except that, if anything, the latter behaves rather worse. David Kelly was shafted only after he had betrayed his employers. Newsnight‘s Susan Watts had done nothing wrong, but she still felt obliged to hire lawyers to protect her from pressure to back a dubious corporate line. Alastair Campbell may not have pulled his punches, but he seems to have put up a cleaner fight than Gavyn Davies. Like the government, but less justifiably, the BBC is now a political machine. It is because it wants powerful allies that it pursues political correctness. It is because it wants mass support that it chases popularity. It wants these things because it feels it has to be ever bigger and more pervasive, rather than being content simply to do its job.
Driving this misplaced ambition is its perverse funding mechanism. Channel proliferation threatens to cut all audience sizes, but if the BBC’s audience falls, support for the licence fee may fall as well. So the BBC must have ever more, ever more popular, output to maintain audience share and thereby silence its political foes. That entails seeking an ever bigger licence fee, which puts it even deeper in hock to people and politicians. This is a game that the BBC cannot win, yet it knows no other. As Panorama might put it, the corporation has bet the farm on a false prospectus.
Salvaging the BBC’s original values would require a break with this poisonous logic. In 2006, the corporation’s charter expires. Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, will shortly launch a charter review process. She has said she will not allow the Kelly affair to influence its outcome. We might all be better off, and so might the BBC, if she thinks again.