Bashir scandal exposes paradox at heart of the BBC
Raymond Snoddy reveals how his own experience of presenting Newswatch, shows how BBC executives respond to crises and how the Corporation must reform after the Dyson report
The Bashir scandal has highlighted once again the paradox at the heart of the BBC.
It is an open and honourable organisation – certainly much more so than many of its tabloid tormentors. As director-general Tim Davie asked in his first BBC programme interview on Tuesday’s Today programme: "What other organisation would let the investigative journalists of Panorama loose on itself?"
It was Davie who ordered a judge-led inquiry into the Bashir affair and published the uncomfortable findings, promptly and in full.
But yet again, the BBC is neither open nor honourable enough.
Across the scandals and the inquiries, from Hutton into the circumstances of the death of Dr David Kelly, and Jimmy Savile to the treatment of Sir Cliff Richard, common themes leap out.
There is an arrogance, a sense that the BBC always knows best and, when challenged, the tendency is usually to circle the wagons and hope the problem will go away.
We also now know how the BBC treated whistleblowers who brought news of serious breaches of its editorial codes.
Graphic designer Matt Wiessler, who mocked up the phoney cheques, without knowing they would be used in the deceitful plan to obtain the Princess Diana scoop, never worked for the BBC again.
Producer Mark Killick was sacked within 24 hours of alerting BBC executives about the forged documents.
There is also an underlying problem in the otherwise admirable BBC tradition of giving powerful programme heads, such as those who run Panorama and Newsnight, considerable autonomy.
The downside is that they have tended to operate in silos, almost apart from the greater organisation.
A BBC crisis is always followed by internal investigation and actions are taken to ensure such a thing can never happen again – until it does.
This time, a trio of board members led by senior independent director Sir Nicholas Serota, will look at what structural changes are needed on BBC governance.
The excellent Ken MacQuarrie, former head of BBC Scotland, who investigated Newsnight’s false allegations against Lord McAlpine, and Jeremy Clarkson’s assault on a Top Gear producer, has been asked to find an answer to the greatest mystery of all.
The mystery is how could it be that despite everything that was known, or suspected at the time, Martin Bashir could be hired in 2016 as religion correspondent and later promoted to BBC Religion Editor.
The action brought a 25-year scandal right up to the present day as Bashir serves out the remaining weeks of his notice following his resignation last week.
Davie said MacQuarrie’s findings could be published as early as next week.
Where were the BBC executives?
One of changes made following Lord Hutton’s report into the death of Dr Kelly and the dodgy Iraq dossier was to create BBC Television’s Newswatch programme.
It was an exercise in extending accountability with BBC news executives coming into the studio to deal with the complaints of viewers. There had been nothing quite like it before, completely different from the jokey, entertainment values of Points of View.
The programme had the explicit support of Mark Byford, the deputy director-general, and he said the presumption was that news executives come into the studio unless there were very specific reasons that they should not.
Not all news executives enjoyed the experience. One asked to do his interview again, and rightly or wrongly was allowed to do so – a privilege hardly extended to outside interviewees.
He clearly hadn’t liked the tough questions and suggested to programme editor Ian Jolly, in a corridor chat maybe he might consider replacing the presenter (moi). Jolly paid no attention.
Later the programme was badly affected by an executive decision that it had to go through the BBC press office to ask for BBC executives to appear. This made it easy to block appearances and send anodyne statements instead.
Even last week, after the publication of the Dyson report, there was no BBC executive in sight (although the programme did a decent account of the crisis).
There is still too great a reluctance by the BBC’s top brass to engage in public, not just with the impact of scandals but on the vital need to defend the purpose and importance of public serving broadcasting in the face of the multi-billion streaming giants.
Davie first appeared live on a BBC programme five days after the publication of the Dyson report, a day later than Richard Sharp, the BBC chairman.
What will or should happen next?
It looks like we could be heading for one of the BBC’s favourite mantras in a crisis – deputy heads shall roll.
According to The Times, the BBC’s deputy director of news, Jonathan Munro has been identified as the person most instrumental in bringing Bashir back to the BBC, although an interview process was held.
It was alleged that Munro’s motive came from a belief that Bashir would win broadcasting awards for the BBC.
If the allegations are true, Munroe’s position could be very problematic.
One thing that could be done almost immediately involves David Jordan, the highly experienced director of editorial policy and standards.
Assuming he does not emerge tainted from any of the inquiries, Jordan’s position should be enhanced as quickly as possible.
It is truly a remarkable oversight that, in an organisation that will always be in the middle of endless public and political controversies, its director of policy and standards is neither on the BBC Board or even the BBC executive committee, which oversees the day-to-day running of the Corporation.
One structural change will be absolutely vital: the creation of a small, specialised unit to oversee the large themes affecting BBC News.
It would be composed of no more than five distinguished former journalists, including one with experience of the BBC, another from ITN, a robust media academic, plus a couple of former editors from the more respectable national newspapers.
Above all, it would have the power to commission independent research into issues in need of illumination. They would stand aside from the hurly-burly of daily news and have nothing to do with the present complaints procedures, which have communications regulator Ofcom as the final court of appeal. Their reports, however critical, should be published.
They would also be the locus for all whistleblowing involving the BBC editorial output and standards.
The Oversight Committee (let’s give it a working name for now) would report directly to David Jordan, who by then should be on the BBC Board.
Maybe as a small symbol of intent, Newswatch could be given more money to carry out its own filmed reports, as it used to be able to do and add an extra five minutes a week of programme time.
More importantly than that, BBC news executives should begin routinely turning out in the studio to deal with viewers' concerns as they once did.