The BBC is in some trouble. Losing two director-generals to shoddy journalism within a decade is more than careless. Britain’s public-service broadcaster is not beyond redemption, but it needs to relearn some journalistic basics quite quickly.
Greg Dyke, who perished in a controversy over reporting related to the Iraq war, was largely the author of his own demise. He had never had much time for the corporation’s Reithian ideals. George Entwistle, only 50-odd days in the role, was forced out by a mixture of bad luck and an unfortunately diffident management style.
When the firestorm about the paedophile activities of the late Jimmy Savile eventually dies down, Entwistle’s departure may well be seen to have been unnecessary. The Newsnight television report wrongly implicating a senior Conservative politician in a paedophilia ring was an extraordinarily sloppy piece of journalism. But in other circumstances the heads to have rolled would have belonged to those who made and edited the programme rather than the editor-in-chief.
The BBC is not in as bad a state as you will read in most of the press. Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers have never exactly been friendly to the corporation. After the exposure of industrial-scale criminality at News International in the phone-hacking affair, the BBC’s troubles over Savile have been a heaven-sent diversion. Murdoch’s editors have abandoned all semblance of objectivity.
Many other newspapers worry their reputations are about to be shredded by the Leveson report on the condition of the press. They are not about to miss an opportunity to kick the publicly funded BBC.
That said, the various inquiries into the BBC’s conduct — in allegedly turning a blind eye to Savile’s predatory sexual activities, in shelving a programme that might have exposed them and, most recently, in abandoning basic checks in reporting another paedophilia scandal — are unlikely to burnish its reputation.
The corporation’s most precious asset is its audience’s trust, and that has taken a serious knock.
Recovery has to start by restoring some elementary standards of journalism. Much of the rot set in during the tenure of Entwistle’s predecessor Mark Thompson, who is about to become chief executive of the New York Times. Thompson liked to cast the BBC as a media behemoth to rival Google. He was obsessed with ‘reach’. The mission to inform, educate and explain could not be allowed to get in the way of boosting audiences.
The BBC’s claim to public financing through a universal licence fee and thus a unique place in the democratic life of Britain rests on a reputation for accuracy and impartiality in news and current affairs. Thompson’s ambitions demanded something else — if the BBC was to ride high in the ratings, the news had to have ‘impact’. Run-of-the-mill politics is often ‘boring’. So why not merge news with comment and concentrate, like the press, on scandal and sensation?
Fixing this is not rocket science. Editors and journalists can be told to demerge reporting from commentary. They should be assured that their reports will not be kicked off primetime television because they lack ‘impact’. The good ones will understand that rigour and accuracy are the ally rather than the enemy of powerful investigative reporting.
One or two egos might be bruised among those old hands who regard themselves as much as celebrities as journalists, but they can be moved on to the after-dinner speaking circuit. The BBC has plenty of talented and not quite so self-obsessed journalists to replace them.
Audiences would actually like getting it straight. Curiously, the corporation seems to understand this in its excellent foreign reporting.
As for quality control, the lesson of the Newsnight debacle is obvious — bureaucratic box-ticking is an inadequate substitute for careful review. Endless layers of checking by executives and lawyers cannot replace the simple application of experienced professional judgement.
Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, has promised a radical shake-up of the corporation’s management. Doubtless things can be improved by stripping out overpaid and redundant executives.
What the BBC now needs above all, though, is a director-general who is first and foremost an editor-in-chief committed to fine journalism.