Former BBC media correspondent Torin Douglas explains what it was like to report on one of the worst crises in the history of the BBC from the inside.
People have often asked me: ‘Isn’t it difficult covering stories about your own organisation?’ One battle-hardened BBC correspondent told me: ‘I wouldn’t do your job for the world.’ I tried to explain that it wasn’t that hard, provided you treated the BBC like any other organisation, striving to be accurate and balanced – and never referring to it as ‘we’. ‘But you have to report on your bosses!’ he said.
- February 24, 2021
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That’s not the biggest pressure, in my experience. In 24 years as the BBC’s media correspondent, working under seven director-generals and six BBC chairmen, I rarely found my bosses trying to influence my reporting, other than in a legitimate editorial context, discussing the top line, interviewees and so on. I had no qualms about reporting criticism of the BBC and its executives, however virulent, provided I gave them the chance to respond. Sadly too often, in my view, they declined. I believe BBC News has a good record over the years in covering the Corporation’s crises frankly and fairly. As a publicly funded, publicly accountable broadcaster, so it should, though it is probably unique among media organisations these days in the robust and balanced way it covers its own affairs.
But BBC executives are less good at putting their heads above the parapet and answering their critics on the airwaves – even though the BBC demands that of every other organisation that finds itself in the news spotlight. And many BBC staff have – at best – a misguided view of how their own organisation works (being too willing to believe what they read in the newspapers) which goes beyond the natural journalists’ scepticism about their own management. This has been exacerbated, understandably, by the BBC’s high executive pay and pay-offs. At worst, staff can take a morbid glee in the reporting of the BBC’s own failings.
For me, the biggest pressure was simply getting the story right and on the air fast, on as many BBC outlets as needed. As a specialist correspondent (and for the past ten years the only media correspondent), I reported round the clock for the national daily news bulletins and ‘sequence’ programmes on radio, television and online. Other BBC journalists have different pressures, covering stories for programmes such as Panorama and The Media Show, with a single weekly deadline and half-hour time slot. Getting it right and on the air fast has inevitably become much more demanding since the arrival of 24-hour news and the internet. There are more BBC outlets to serve, shorter deadlines and more competitors. Twitter has become a newsfeed in its own right, acting as a clearing house for media owners to trumpet their breaking stories amid the gossip, jokes, half-truths and occasional libels tweeted by others.
As media correspondent, you don’t want major news about the corporation to break on a rival media outlet. That is not easy to ensure when the BBC remains as leaky as it does and when, with the best of motives, it declines to confirm a story publicly until it has informed its own staff (which can mean, ironically, that they actually hear it from Twitter or a rival broadcaster or newspaper). And you don’t want to get a BBC story wrong. That sometimes means waiting for confirmation, or more details, when the Corporation’s competitors may be happy to fly kites or take a particular line. Programme editors find it very frustrating when the correspondent says they cannot confirm a story that is running on another media outlet and will try to push you on the air straight away. But ‘never wrong for long’ is not an acceptable philosophy for the BBC – especially about its own affairs.
The day George Entwistle resigned
The day George Entwistle resigned, 10 November 2012, provides a flavour of what it’s like to cover such a story from within the BBC. That morning I was hoping – perhaps optimistically – for a bit of a lull, after a succession of 18-hour days, feeding the BBC’s many news outlets, from 6am to midnight. It was a Saturday and the previous fortnight had been relentless, even by the standards of a story which by now had been running on front pages and news bulletins for more than 40 days. Since the end of September, when newspapers started previewing claims in an ITV documentary that Jimmy Savile had been a predatory sex offender, there had been questions over why Newsnight had not broadcast similar claims nine months before and how much the BBC had known about Savile’s activities. The BBC had set up two independent inquiries, to be conducted by a former Appeal Court judge. Dame Janet Smith, and the former head of Sky News, Nick Pollard.
There had been a Panorama programme in which two Newsnight journalists challenged their editor’s version of events, leading the BBC to admit there had been errors in the editor’s blog and the Prime Minister to say that the BBC had ‘effectively changed its story’. MPs on the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee had accused the new Director-General, George Entwistle, of an ‘extraordinary lack of curiosity’ over the Savile allegations and told him to ‘get a grip’. The BBC Chairman, Lord Patten, had defended Entwistle’s performance, saying he had been ‘overwhelmed by a Tsunami of filth’.
The following Friday, as if to show it hadn’t lost its bottle, Newsnight aired a report linking a ‘senior Conservative politician of the Thatcher era’ to the sexual abuse of children in care homes. It did not name him, but many on the internet did. A week later, on Friday 9 November, the BBC found itself in even greater disarray. On Radio 4’s bulletins that day, I charted events as they unfolded (with some developments breaking minutes before major bulletins, demanding urgent rewrites). These are some extracts from across the day:
- After days of frenzied speculation, the former Conservative Party Treasurer, Lord McAlpine, has issued a categorical denial of allegations linking him to the sexual abuse of children from care homes in North Wales in the 1970s and 1980s … The BBC’s Newsnight programme had aired claims by a former resident of a care home in Wrexham, Steve Meesham, that he’d been abused by an unnamed senior Tory from the Thatcher era….
- This morning the Guardian named Lord McAlpine as being at the centre of the speculation but said it could have been a case of mistaken identity…
- Tonight, in a statement, Mr Meesham said he’d now seen a picture of Lord McAlpine and it was not the person he’d identified in the early 1990s from a photograph shown him by police. He offered his sincere and humble apologies to Lord McAlpine and his family…
- The BBC has apologised unreservedly … Lord McAlpine’s solicitors said they’d be taking legal action against all media who had defamed his reputation…
The following morning’s headlines summed up the story: ‘BBC in turmoil as Newsnight’s Tory abuse story falls apart’ proclaimed the Guardian. ‘BBC faces inquiry after outcry over abuse claims’ said The Times. Having read the early newspaper editions on Friday night and filed for Radio 4’s midnight bulletin, I recorded the following piece for Saturday morning bulletins for Radio 4, making it also available for Radio 2, 5 Live, the BBC World Service and local stations:
If the Jimmy Savile crisis were not enough, the BBC is now facing legal action from Lord McAlpine, whose solicitor has accused Newsnight of severely damaging his client’s reputation, even though the programme never revealed his name. It’s also facing questions about how the report came to be broadcast, without its allegations being put to Lord McAlpine, or his photograph being checked with his accuser. The BBC Director-General, George Entwistle, has asked the Director of BBC Scotland, Ken McQuarrie, to write an urgent report detailing what happened. He’s also ordered a pause in all Newsnight investigations while their editorial robustness is assessed. The Conservative MP Rob Wilson said the Newsnight report had been ‘shoddy journalism’ but welcomed the Director-General’s response. He has also written to the media regulator Ofcom asking whether it thought there were grounds for investigating the BBC broadcast.
That Saturday morning, I wasn’t expecting a day off but I was hoping to handle my radio broadcasts from home, to recharge my batteries (metaphorically). I started with a two-way at 6.05am on Radio 5 Live, followed by Today an hour later. With luck, I might get no further demands till the Radio 4 lunchtime bulletin. Then I heard George Entwistle’s Today interview with John Humphrys, in which he admitted he had not known of the Newsnight allegations till the following day and had not read the Guardian story which suggested Lord McAlpine had been wrongly accused. He insisted he was not going to resign. No lull for me then – on the contrary!
A Saturday morning in the BBC Newsroom is usually a very quiet time, with no senior executives taking charge (one did emerge later on). In their absence, at 9am I was summoned in to Television Centre in west London by an understandably keen newsdesk editor to cover the story for the day’s TV bulletins, including hourly live analysis for the BBC News Channel. A colleague was deputed to handle most of the radio coverage. The TV reports turned out to be straightforward, since there were no developments for much of the day, apart from media and political commentators criticising Entwistle’s performance on Today. For the teatime TV bulletin, I began my piece:
Another day, another BBC crisis – and once again its flagship daily TV news programme is under the spotlight.
I included two clips from George Entwistle’s Today interview, a highly critical clip from John Whittingdale, chairman of the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, and my own ‘piece to camera’ observation: ‘Weeks after the Jimmy Savile crisis began, the BBC is now facing more questions, not just about its journalism but about the way the organisation is run.’ For Radio 4’s 1800 bulletin, I recorded an analysis piece, with a more political take:
Another day, another BBC crisis – but this one feels different. Over the years, the BBC has had bruising battles with governments of various persuasions – over the General Strike and Suez, over its coverage of Northern Ireland and the Falklands War under Margaret Thatcher, and over the Iraq War dossier under Tony Blair. That crisis cost the BBC its chairman and director-general. But though this one also involves a former political figure, it seems self-inflicted….
The Saturday evening TV bulletin was due to go out at 9pm and though my earlier piece merely needed tweaking, I decided to stick around until the bulletin went out, just in case. At 8.15, I got a call from the BBC Corporate Press Office saying a statement would be made at 9pm at New Broadcasting House, the BBC’s glossy, glass-fronted headquarters in Central London. I jumped on a tube train and met the TV cameraman there, as a makeshift media scrum began to form in front of a microphone outside the main entrance. There was speculation, on rival media and Twitter – but no BBC confirmation – that George Entwistle was going to resign. The minutes ticked by. At 9.15pm, as the main BBC One news bulletin ended, Entwistle emerged with Lord Patten and spoke to the cameras, saying the ‘unacceptable journalistic standards’ of the Newsnight film had damaged the public’s confidence in the BBC: ‘As the Director-General of the BBC, I am ultimately responsible for all content as editor-in-chief, and I have therefore decided that the honourable thing for me to do is to step down.’
Minutes later, the camera was turned round so I could be interviewed on the BBC News Channel, together with the BBC’s Home Editor Mark Easton in the studio in west London. Then, after I had spent the day reporting mainly for TV, the newsdesk asked me to switch horses and file for Radio 4’s 10 o’clock news, while Easton took over the TV coverage from Television Centre. By now it was almost 9.30. ‘Have as much time as you like’ said the Radio 4 bulletin editor. ‘It’s a huge story’. Indeed, it was. I walked into New Broadcasting House, where I had a desk on the seventh floor, as part of the advance guard who had moved into the new building ahead of the newsroom teams. I bashed out two minutes of copy, reporting on the day’s events, pressed the key to print it out – and nothing happened. I had been working in the west London newsroom all day, and the system had got confused.
It was now almost 9.50. I was keen to record my script, rather than read it live, because I had been broadcasting since 6 o’clock that morning after less than five hours’ sleep, and that’s when fluffs can happen. But either way I had nothing to read from! For a moment I felt a wave of panic. Because BBC News was still moving into the new building, the computer in the seventh-floor studio was not yet connected, so I could not read the script off the screen. The new lifts were temperamental, so to go down to the main newsroom on the lower ground floor might take several minutes. Switching on a computer in a studio there could take a few minutes more. So I decided to email my script to myself, and read it off my iPhone. That presents its own hazards. I would have to scroll down the screen very gently for fear of pressing too hard and losing the page altogether.
I was halfway through recording my two-minute script, with a few minutes in hand, when the studio manager said: ‘I’m sorry, they’ve told me to transfer you to the bulletin studio – they say you’ve got to do it live.’ So that’s what I did, scrolling down the screen even more gently, for fear of losing my script live on air, on what was already a black enough day for the BBC.
Crisis nothing new for the BBC
The sudden departure of BBC bosses is nothing new, and they are rarely timed conveniently for BBC news bulletins.
- In 2007, I covered the resignation of Peter Fincham as Controller of BBC One, when the BBC put out a trailer for a documentary wrongly suggesting the Queen had stormed out of a photoshoot. I was the first to interview him, while events were still unfolding, and after I switched off the recorder he said: ‘I am in trouble, aren’t I?’ He had realised for the first time the full seriousness of his situation.
- The following year, Lesley Douglas resigned as Controller of Radio 2, after the station broadcast obscene phone calls by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand to the actor Andrew Sachs. After a day of meetings and door-steppings, her resignation – and Ross’s suspension – finally came through at five to six, desperately close to the 6 o’clock bulletins.
Three of the last four BBC chairmen left suddenly, before their time.
- Sir Christopher Bland resigned one morning to become chairman of BT. Jeff Randall, then the BBC’s Business Editor, broke the news on the Today programme shortly after the Stock Exchange opened. Unfortunately – some would say unforgiveably – he and his producer and the Today team had not told anyone else in BBC News, which left me scrabbling around at 7am trying to confirm it was true, so the BBC’s many other breakfast outlets could carry the news too.
- Michael Grade left at 10pm one night to become Executive Chairman of ITV, one of the BBC’s biggest rivals. Again, I was scrambled from home at short notice to confirm the news and give instant analysis.
- Gavyn Davies resigned following the Hutton Report in 2004, which was prompted by the BBC’s mishandling of the Today broadcast about the Iraq War dossier and a ferocious battle with Alastair Campbell and the Labour government. Within hours of the report’s publication, he revealed his intention to resign to Andrew Marr – then the BBC’s political editor – who immediately reported it on News 24, leaving me to follow up on PM and other outlets. The revelation meant Davies had to resign straight away, before the crucial BBC governors’ meeting which he had intended to chair, leaving little support for the Director-General Greg Dyke. The next day Dyke went too, leaving the BBC leaderless and me rushing from studio to studio to explain, as best I could, what was going on and the likely implications.
That remarkable episode puts the recent BBC troubles into some perspective. The Hutton story lasted many months, from Andrew Gilligan’s early morning report on the Today programme, through the death of Dr David Kelly and weeks of evidence to Lord Hutton’s Inquiry, to the publication of his report and its aftermath. One faint silver lining was that throughout that period BBC News was widely acknowledged to have handled the story fully and fairly, without trying to argue the BBC’s case itself.
But in some ways, covering the Savile/Newsnight crisis was more difficult. When the Pollard Inquiry was set up, the key participants hired lawyers and the BBC’s legal team became extra-sensitive, insisting that we should constantly state – even in a 30-second news summary – that one of those involved had not yet put their side of the story. At 2 o’clock one morning, I was still waiting to file my piece for the morning bulletins as a BBC lawyer debated its wording with the Radio 4 bulletin editor – four hours before I was due on air for my first live ‘two-way’ of the day. In addition, BBC News was on the back foot because Newsnight had spiked a hugely important story which ITV later exposed.
With Channel 4 and newspapers piling in with their own Savile revelations, some BBC editors understandably wanted to make up lost ground with their own exposés, both about Savile and the BBC’s handling of the affair. Panorama, The Media Show and Today broke excellent new ground at various stages – most notably John Humphrys’ fierce but fair interview with George Entwistle – demonstrating that at its best BBC News can genuinely and robustly hold its own organisation to account. But a few ran the risk of becoming ‘part of the story’, trying to fight their own corner, or that of BBC bosses they thought had been unfairly treated. And the Newsnight debacle over Lord McAlpine showed the danger of desperately searching for a scoop.
Is the BBC still in crisis?
For a month after George Entwistle resigned, the BBC was in a highly dangerous situation, as it waited to see whether anyone with the right qualifications could be persuaded to take on one of the toughest – and most high-profile – jobs in public life. Having made the wrong decision in the summer, there was huge pressure on Lord Patten and the BBC Trustees to make amends.
It should become a business school case study, demonstrating how, by appointing the wrong leader, a globally-renowned organisation can move ‘from Hero to Zero’ in a matter of weeks. On 17 September 2012, when Entwistle became Director-General, the BBC was basking in widespread praise for its extensive, ground-breaking coverage of the London Olympics and the Proms and dramas such as Sherlock, The Hollow Crown and Parade’s End. Two months later, when the director-general had been paid off with twice his legal entitlement, the Corporation looked accident-prone, incompetent and careless with licence-payers’ cash.
The BBC was fortunate that Tony Hall was prepared to take on the challenge. One former senior executive had texted him saying: ‘This is your Lord Kitchener moment – the BBC needs you!’ Had he not stepped forward, I’m not sure anyone else had the range of experience and, above all, the credibility to restore the BBC’s reputation and prepare it for its next charter and licence fee settlement (Douglas 2012). Tim Davie did a good job as interim Director-General, steadying the ship and demonstrating the management skills that George Entwistle lacked. But Lord Hall’s experience as a former editor and director of BBC News, and a successful Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House, put him head and shoulders above any competition that might have come forward.
Lord Hall is the right leader for the BBC, and he has made a good start, bringing together a fresh top team, including outsiders such as James Purnell, Anne Bulford and James Harding. He has announced plans to boost the BBC’s arts and music output, enhance the iPlayer, improve access to the more intellectual radio programmes and treat licence-payers like ‘owners’, not just users, of the BBC (Hall 2013). But that doesn’t make the job any easier and severe problems remain. None in itself amounts to a crisis but together they could still cause real damage to the Corporation.
The BBC's continuing problems
Jimmy Savile’s legacy
At the time of writing, Dame Janet Smith’s Review (of the culture and practices at the BBC while Jimmy Savile worked there) has yet to be published – but there can be little doubt that it will cause further damage to the BBC’s reputation. The review has interviewed 140 witnesses and noted telephone calls with more than 340. Though it deals with the past, its findings could have legal ramifications which rumble on for years – and which also highlight continuing flaws in the BBC’s current workplace practices.
The BBC’s journalism
The director of BBC News, James Harding (who came from The Times) has hired people from other news organisations and so has the editor of Newsnight, Ian Katz (who came from the Guardian). Trust in the BBC has started to return (though some believe Newsnight’s flamboyant presentational techniques are distracting – and detracting – from its journalism). But the Savile/Newsnight crisis demonstrated real flaws in the editorial and management structure of the BBC news division, which grew like Topsy as it tried to integrate the Corporation’s global and local journalism with its national news operations.
Does it need unpicking, as some have suggested? Or are there greater strengths in having a unified BBC news structure? Have management cuts – which closed the post of the deputy director-general in charge of journalism – left it (ironically) undermanaged, with too few ‘wise heads’ at times of major stories?
Executive pay and pay-offs
BBC executives were not always well-paid, which is one reason the Corporation offered a generous pension scheme. As a journalist, I took a pay cut to join the BBC in 1989, and my income fell further more than once, as its spending cuts started to bite. But for managers it has been a different story. Executive pay in the BBC has escalated dramatically, as it has in many other public organisations. Some have blamed the influx of London Weekend executives as BBC chairmen and director-generals, others the arrival of bankers and highly-paid directors as non-executive members of the BBC board and remuneration committee.
Others have blamed the much higher pay packets (and in some cases share options) at Sky, ITV, Channel 4 and the new digital and technology companies. Whatever the reason, high pay became, in the words of Lord Patten, ‘a toxic issue’, angering MPs and lowly-paid BBC staff alike. (Whenever I went into a studio to cover the BBC annual report, I would find studio managers beside themselves with fury at the salaries and bonuses awarded to the executive board).
The over-generous pay-offs made matters worse, even though they speeded up the cuts in senior management (and the departure of George Entwistle) and so reduced the top pay bill more quickly. The Public Accounts Committee castigated the BBC for a ‘culture of cronyism’. Tony Hall has now capped such pay-offs (at £150,000) and even quoted the old Morecambe and Wise joke about the BBC suit, as an aspiration to return to – ‘small checks’. But it won’t be easy. When, a few years ago, the BBC capped – and then abolished – management bonuses, and later cut a month’s salary from the executive board’s pay packets, no one took any notice. And Hall has already been criticised by John Whittingdale MP for the salaries he is paying his new senior appointments.
As well as cutting its executive pay bill, the BBC has to manage its overall budget, on a licence fee reduced in real terms by 16 per cent. It budgeted for a further 4 per cent saving to invest in new projects and in October 2013 Tony Hall said his new plans would cost a further £100 million. From 2017, the BBC moves into a new licence-fee phase, with an income that, at best, is unlikely to increase.
‘The eternal mystery of the BBC’
Yet despite all these problems, the BBC’s programmes, both on radio and television and in the mobile and digital arena, remain enormously popular and much admired. So does its website. Indeed, the BBC is accused by its commercial rivals of being too popular and powerful, not too weak. It’s as if the BBC’s management failings occur in a parallel universe from its output. The Times put it well:
The eternal mystery of the BBC is how an organisation that works so badly can work so well. As impressive a journalistic organisation as any, it is nonetheless a managerial basket case. When the spotlight shines on its internal workings, it diminishes in popular stature and deserves to’ (The Times editorial 16 December 2013).
Newspaper coverage of the BBC reflects that mystery, particularly in those most hostile to it as an organisation, which devote page after page to its programmes. On the day the Daily Telegraph reported the Public Accounts Committee’s criticisms of the BBC executive pay-offs (on page 13), it carried a picture on its front page of Andy Murray, named BBC Sports Personality of the Year; devoted the whole of page 3 to the event, including eight photographs; carried four full-length photos of the Strictly Come Dancing finalists on page 9, as well as an article about the forthcoming return of Sherlock (‘Sherlock explains even he cannot explain faked death’). On another page, The Choir’s Gareth Malone explained why he would not want Paul McCartney or Elvis Presley in his choir.
I don’t believe the BBC is currently in crisis – and it has plenty of goodwill in the bank, as long as Strictly Come Dancing, Sherlock, Doctor Who, Great British Bakeoff and Call the Midwife (to name only its most popular drama and entertainment programmes) are winning audiences and acclaim; when Radio 4 is attracting its highest ever listening figures; and when the licence fee provides as much value as it does to millions of people for forty pence a day. But Tony Hall and his team have to tackle its problems, embrace real change and build a clear new strategy for the BBC, if it is to win the public’s confidence for the next ten years of the licence fee.
Torin Douglas has reported on the media for 40 years, including 24 years as the media correspondent for BBC News and spells at The Times, the Economist, the Independent and LBC Radio. He is a Visiting Professor at the University of Bedfordshire and holds an honorary doctorate from the University of West London. He is the author of The Complete Guide to Advertising (Macmillan, 1985) and a fellow of the Communications Advertising and Marketing (CAM) Foundation. He was awarded the MBE in 2013 for services to the community in Chiswick. He now speaks, writes and chairs events about the media and community issues.
This piece is an extract from Is the BBC in crisis? published by Arima Publishing edited by John Mair, Richard Tait and Richard Lance Keeble.