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26 May 2021

Perma-crisis at the corporation: Why the BBC keeps failing

We have seen that managing “scoops” can be deeply problematic for the BBC – the Martin Bashir interview with Princess Diana is just one example of that. 

By Roger Mosey

There are few friends left inside the BBC for its former director-general Tony Hall. His reputation among staff has “taken a hammering”, says one well-known broadcaster. A senior producer describes himself as “hugely disappointed” that Hall failed to do the right thing in his investigation into how Martin Bashir secured his scoop interview with Princess Diana in 1995, and that the BBC “trashed the career of the most junior person involved”. Another adds that staff are “incensed” that Bashir was rehired in 2016 as the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent given what Hall knew about his past. “It all contributes to the general loss of confidence around the place,” says one thoughtful insider. “Are people as proud to work for the BBC as they were ten years ago? I doubt it.” A former editor puts it starkly: “When your entire reputation, and self-image, is built on trust, it could not be more serious.”

I was one of the people who favoured Hall becoming director-general in 2012 in the aftermath of the horrendous Jimmy Savile affair. We thought the corporation needed someone with long experience of BBC News who would bring stability. But it was an appointment made without a process that could have scrutinised Hall’s agenda or tested him against the competition. Nobody else was invited to apply, and the job was settled by conversations with Lord Patten, who was then chairman of the BBC Trust. What was already known was overlooked: that Hall had a tendency to swerve awkward decisions, and an inclination towards smooth public relations over tougher strategic choices. But he deserves credit for bringing a personable style to the director-general’s office and restoring corporate calm in his early years. What almost nobody knew was that Hall’s experience also brought the lurking horrors of his investigation into the circumstances of the Bashir interview, known now – and, crucially, by Hall at the time – to have been achieved by lies, and which is primed to destabilise the BBC all over again. 

The BBC must ask itself why this kind of crisis keeps happening. How is it that the most important broadcaster in the UK – and admired, still, across the world – keeps getting itself into such scrapes? The answer is almost certainly not to be found in more political intervention and changes in governance. The system which failed around the Bashir interview in 1995 was replaced ten years later following the crisis over the reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; and the replacement BBC Trust proved to be a failure too. More tinkering is unlikely to work, and if the BBC can honestly define the problems, then it should be allowed to provide the remedies.

It should start by acknowledging that its senior leaders have been chosen from a terribly shallow pool. The last four directors-general are the man who was editor of the BBC Nine O’Clock News when I was editor of the PM programme (Mark Thompson); the man who was editor of Newsnight when I was head of television news (George Entwistle); the man who was director of news when I was editor of the Today programme (Tony Hall); and now Tim Davie, who was radio director when I was in charge of the 2012 Olympics coverage.

[see also: Can the BBC emerge unscathed from the Martin Bashir and Princess Diana crisis?]

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All white men, all BBC veterans; and, whatever their considerable qualities, it defies belief that they represent the four best candidates from the entire media industry in the past two decades. It is also clear that the director general bears too heavy a burden in being both chief executive and editor-in-chief, and this is especially true for Davie, who has no background in news.

Until 2011, when he was recklessly declared redundant by his boss Mark Thompson, Mark Byford was an extremely effective deputy director-general in charge of journalism; and it is that kind of leadership, by a powerful figure with a remit across the corporation, which would be more effective than creating new boards and bureaucracies. We have seen that managing “scoops” can be deeply problematic for the BBC: there is the Panorama Diana interview and Newsnight’s disastrous pursuit in 2012 of allegations against Lord McAlpine, as well as the quest for a story about a police investigation into Cliff Richard in 2014, which led to a humiliating # defeat in court and a huge legal bill.    

The BBC also needs to break out from its bunker mentality. When you are inside the corporation, you think of it as vulnerable and assailed by enemies – most notably hostile commercial media organisations and politicians who are ideologically opposed to public broadcasting. This leads to what one long-serving employee describes as “internal chummy assumptions that we’re decent types and do good on the whole, so any external criticism is mean-spirited and unjust”. This can be accompanied by a reluctance to admit mistakes and a truculence towards regulation. Two senior members of Ofcom have told me they found a BBC that seemed reluctant to acknowledge it had a duty to comply with their requests.  One found the culture of the corporation “utterly baffling”.   

This mentality was exhibited when no BBC executive was put up for interview between Prince William’s condemnation on 20 May of the corporation’s behaviour over Diana and the chairman Richard Sharp’s appearance on air on 24 May. It is hard for the BBC to claim to be one of the country’s most accountable organisations and then to boycott its own airwaves in the immediate aftermath of the biggest story about it in years. This is the same mentality through which the BBC has created on-air accountability programmes – Feedback on radio and Newswatch on TV – and then periodically refuses to go on them to answer awkward questions.

Davie and his team should be given a chance to make radical change. They must know, though, that failure would have two consequences: politicians would intervene more and, worse, public trust – the foundation of the BBC – would be damaged beyond repair.  

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and former head of BBC Television News

This article appears in the 26 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new Toryism