Peter Jones: BBC recast as Madame Guillotine

A feature of the French Revolution, exemplary executions now appear on the rise at the BBC
A feature of the French Revolution, exemplary executions now appear on the rise at the BBC
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HEADS are rolling at the BBC, but we should be careful not to snuff out the investigative instinct at its core, writes Peter Jones

All journalism entails taking a risk, and investigative journalism is riskiest of all. Get the facts wrong, and there is hell to pay. But I cannot help thinking that the orgy of recrimination at the BBC over the, admittedly horrendously, wrong story on Newsnight is creating another set of risks – the abandonment of investigative journalism and the warping of the corporation’s news and current affairs programming to suit other, mostly political, agendas that have nothing to do with factual broadcasting.

As I write, the heads seem to be rolling faster than from Madame Guillotine in the French Revolution. This will surely meet with the approval of Atholl Duncan, a former head of BBC Scotland news and current affairs who, now recast as Madame Defarge, knitted together in The Scotsman yesterday a long list of people whose necks should feel the final cold kiss of sharpened steel.

As far as I could tell, in order to atone for the appalling error of wrongly implying that a senior Conservative figure was a sex abuser of semi-captive teenage boys, Mr Duncan believes that everybody associated with the error has to be fired – the reporters, producers, news executives and managers – and the programme itself should be chopped. I agree the mistakes made were basic and dreadful – no attempt at double-checking or to put the accusation to the accused – but exemplary executions should be just that, exemplary and not a bloodbath.

Early in my career, and virtuously keen to learn as much as possible, I asked an experienced newsman what were the most valuable lessons he had learned. He laughed and said that they were mostly mistakes because, he said, you learn never to make them again. And, he added, if I was lucky, I would work with people who had made lots of mistakes who would help me to avoid them. I have been so fortunate, but that still hasn’t prevented me from making my own mistakes which, also fortunately, have been mostly minor and correctable.

If newsrooms had to be staffed by people who never made a mistake, they would be entirely empty and there would be no news. The broad cull advocated by Mr Duncan can only lead to a news organisation so fearful of making mistakes that it avoids them by taking no risk, meaning no investigative journalism for rich, powerful, and nefarious people to fear.

The worst thing a media organisation which has got something wrong can do is attempt to deny it or to cover it up. That makes journalists as guilty as the people, usually politicians, whom they are trying to expose as having told lies or made a mess of public policy. As far as I can tell, the BBC is certainly not guilty of that. Almost as soon as the offending item was conclusively denied by the public figure concerned, the mistake was not just admitted and apologised for, but analysed in self-flagellating detail not just by Newsnight but by almost every other channel of the Corporation’s news output.

Contrast that, for example, with the way the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World was denied and covered up by the newspaper’s executives. This, remember, was not about a mere mistake, but endemic and routine alleged criminal behaviour by that newspaper’s staff.

And, in contrast to the way James Murdoch clung on to his seat of power denying any knowledge of wrong-doing for months before his story became unbelievable and his position untenable, George Entwistle, the BBC’s director-general, resigned even though he had nothing to do with Newsnight’s output. While that may appear a commendable act of acceptance of responsibility, I also think it was wrong because it indicates confusion about where responsibility lies and the blurring of roles which should be distinct.

One of my first jobs in journalism was on the Press and Journal newspaper at a time when houses were being thrown up by the thousands around Aberdeen as the oil industry boomed. Some of these were shoddily built. The buyers suffered, which the newspaper reported, pointing the finger of blame, in one case, at a major national house-builder.

The firm retaliated, cancelling all advertising and suing the paper. The editor came under huge pressure. He responded by increasing coverage of the story which, after he had double-checked it for accuracy, he had complete faith in. Eventually the builder caved in, dropped its legal action, and the homebuyers got their houses fixed. If it had been up to, say, a profit-orientated chief executive, I suspect the outcome would have been affected by some £250,000 of lost advertising – and the unfortunate homeowners would have got nothing.

The BBC’s director-general is not just its chief executive, but also its editor-in-chief and responsible for all news output, as well as the quality of its drama, the audience numbers, and so on. As it is taxpayer-funded, the DG also has to ensure licence fees are not wasted and so has politicians constantly breathing down his or her neck.

There is an obvious clash there between journalism, which needs to be responsibly fearless, and political interests, who would prefer it to be biddably obedient. The BBC, in my view, needs a clear editorial chain of command which ends at the desk of an editor figure. The DG’s responsibility should be to ensure the editor is not irresponsible and should exclude any responsibility for news content. The lack of this clear distinction has created an opportunity for politicians to rush in and demand “solutions” which fit their own agenda but do nothing to support, and could indeed undermine, independent news gathering and dissemination.

The more “safeguards” you put in to prevent another Newsnight error, the less likely it will be that news about a public figure which embarrasses, exposes as a charlatan, or reveals to be a criminal will be broadcast.

Let’s remember that this all began with the revelation that Newsnight had decided not to broadcast an item which would have alleged Sir Jimmy Savile was a paedophile. It was evidently thought too risky, and only with the benefit of hindsight is it now known that it was a risk that should have been taken.

The more checks you put in to ensure the second and wrongful allegation by Newsnight is not repeated, the less probable it will be that any other Savile-type allegations will even be investigated, never mind aired.