The BBC’s news and current affairs departments are beset by a “culture of denial” in which editors are unwilling to “address things that are manifestly wrong”, according to the outgoing chief executive of the Royal Television Society.
Giving a speech at his retirement dinner last night, Simon Albury attacked the corporation over its apparent reluctance to apologise to single mother Shanene Thorpe, who it wrongly suggested was unemployed and living off benefits earlier this year.
Thorpe was interviewed by Newsnight’s Allegra Stratton on 23 May for a report into housing benefits.
According to The Times (£), Albury said it was “probably the most patronising interview I have ever seen” and had wrongly implied that Thorpe was “unemployed and a scrounger”.
In response to the report, Thorpe set up an online petition that attracted 15,000 signatures over seven days and was sent to BBC senior management including Peter Rippon, Janice Hadlow, Helen Boaden, Peter Horrocks, Jeremy Paxman, Kirsty Wark, Gavin Esler, Emily Maitlis and Mark Thompson.
The Guardian reports that while then Newsnight editor apologised privately to Thorpe it took another three months before it broadcast an on-air apology.
Albury said there was "a culture of denial at the top of BBC News and Current affairs and an unwillingness to address things that are manifestly wrong" – and linked the incident to the scandal over Newsnight’s spiked Jimmy Savile documentary and the £185,000 libel payout to Lord McAlpine.
He became involved in Thorpe’s campaign because Newnight was displaying the RTS logo for an award it won earlier this year.
Albury said three days after the online petition was sent he asked the BBC what Newsnight's response was. It replied: “We are aware she has started a petition. When we actually get the complaint we will investigate and respond.”
He told the audience: “So the whole top chain of command from the Newsnight editor up gets a petition from 20,000 people raising a serious issue of misrepresentation – and the BBC don't plan to investigate because they haven't received a formal complaint.
"It took Newsnight more than three months to broadcast an apology for creating the impression Shanene Thorpe was unemployed, wholly dependent on benefits and living off the state as a lifestyle choice – none of which was true.
"It is inconceivable to me you would find this kind of misrepresentation outside the BBC – on Sky or any other commercial public service broadcaster. The Shanene Thorpe story and the events of the last few months show that today it is the commercial broadcasters who keep the BBC honest."
Albury, a former producer on the BBC’s World Today, later told The Times: “It appears there was a culture of laxity that ultimately leads to McAlpine.
“The BBC’s failure to grasp the nettle when a serious problem is identified is also at the heart of the Jimmy Savile case.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “Newsnight contacted Shanene Thorpe when we became aware of the petition.
“An apology was made personally to Shanene and published on the programme's website and the BBC complaints website on 1 June, a week after the interview was broadcast.
“Shanene then decided to lodge an official complaint to the BBC's Editorial Complaints Unit. Following its ruling in August, a correction and apology was made on-air.”
The BBC aired this apology to Thorpe on 30 August: “On May 23 during an item on welfare reform we broadcast an interview with Shanene Thorpe that unfairly created the mistaken impression that she was unemployed and wholly dependent on benefits and suggested that she was living off the state as a ‘lifestyle choice’.
“She has asked us to make clear she has been in work, or work-related education, since leaving school. Shortly after the programme we published an apology on our website for the unmerited embarrassment and any distress the item caused her. We are happy to make this broadcast apology as well.”