BBC bosses, my part in their downfall – part 2

There are all sorts of ways matters could have turned out differently in the row between the BBC and the government over Andrew Gilligan’s reporting, which might have prevented the crisis in the corporation and the double resignation of Director General and Chair of the Governors. As I said in my previous entry, I wrote a report identifying 14 possible turning points.

Here’s one example, which I mulled over a lot, as to me it represented how the dispute had spiralled out of control – one of Alastair Campbell’s numerous letters of complaint to the BBC about Andrew Gilligan.

This particular three-page epistle raised twelve specific issues amidst some generalised angry bluster. The BBC news management replied at length but dismissively.

Much later it became clear, once we had worked through all the evidence, that two of his twelve points were actually valid. If the BBC had scrutinised the reporting more carefully at the time, noticed the errors and acknowledged them, then perhaps that might have altered the tone of relations and helped to set events on a different course.

But equally well, if Campbell had only protested about the two issues where he was essentially right, then that would have forced the BBC to focus on those particular points and possibly realise the mistakes.

Campbell frequently liked to say that the BBC would never confess to error. But this just wasn’t true. I personally, for example, once had the task a couple of years previously of examining a complaint of his about the BBC’s coverage of a Blair speech. On investigation, it turned out that the reporting was indeed inaccurate, basically because one BBC political correspondent hadn’t told another BBC political correspondent what Downing Street had briefed. And we replied to him admitting the mistake and explaining what occurred.

But what had happened by 2003 was that the BBC had received so many missives from Campbell which it regarded as spurious that his complaints had become devalued and taken less seriously.

Note to self (as I thought at the time): If you want your complaints to be effective, only raise the issues where you’re right. Equally, if your role involves investigating complaints, then no matter how long, convoluted and error-strewn a complaint is, you have to work thoroughly through it in case it contains some truths.

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Much of my time with the BBC’s Hutton Inquiry team was spent working in a drab, locked room, with windows covered over, on the ground floor of Bush House.

The room had been picked because Bush House, the base for the BBC World Service, was close to the court where the inquiry was taking place. And this room was also thought to be sufficiently secure.

Clearly there were security worries. I’d earlier heard Richard Sambrook, the Director of News, telling his PA not to let the normal office cleaners in to the news management suite of rooms at Television Centre during this period.

But this room was pretty grim and dispiriting. I think it had previously been some kind of store room.  

Sometimes Greg Dyke, the Director General, and Gavyn Davies, the Chair of the Governors, would be there.

I used to listen to them talking and think it sounded like they were in opposite roles. Greg came across like the Chair who had a big picture perspective and a few key priorities, Gavyn like the Chief Exec who was on top of everything and knew what was going on.

Greg had many virtues (and I admired how he was trying to change the BBC’s internal culture, to make it more flexible and positive), but sadly a thorough understanding of the detail of this whole business was not one of them.

In contrast Gavyn had a remarkably impressive recall of all that had happened and been said. Indeed he sometimes seemed rather smilingly supercilious towards Greg about this difference between them. Gavyn was undoubtedly very clever but also a touch arrogant. Other people could have helped him more than he realised on presentational points, if he’d been willing to let them.

The unfortunate gaps in Greg’s grasp of events became clear when he gave evidence, halting and unfocused, to the inquiry. Lord Hutton was clearly very unimpressed, and he wasn’t the only one. A BBC journalist who was present to cover the inquiry told me that other reporters around her were appalled and she’d never felt so embarrassed to work for the BBC. Afterwards Greg himself clearly knew it had gone badly.

I was very worried in advance about his turn to give evidence. When I and others were trying to prepare him, the weaknesses in his knowledge became clear. I sought out an opportunity for a private conversation with a member of the BBC’s executive committee, as I felt I had to warn someone sufficiently senior. I think it was the one time in the whole process that I was left feeling that I, as a junior member of staff, had spoken beyond my rank.

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I remember one meeting of the BBC’s Hutton team where Greg and Gavyn joked about how they both might have to resign if the outcome of the inquiry went very badly. Many a true word is said in jest, but I was surprised at the time, not envisaging that as a likely outcome. I was firmly trapped in the team’s groupthink which confidently expected a report that would balance criticisms of the BBC and the government.

Possibly at that point they had both received their confidential ‘Maxwellisation’ letters outlining criticisms they would face from the inquiry. I saw Richard Sambrook open the one he received. Richard normally seemed pretty imperturbable to me, but there was a look of shock on his face when he started to read it.

Greg has since said that he never thought he would have to resign. Maybe. Or perhaps by the time of the report’s publication both he and Gavyn were actually psychologically quite prepared for that eventuality.

There was another factor which I think gave the BBC management an over-optimistic perspective on how things were going. It was a failure to recognise that in external perceptions the main representative of the BBC was the reporter at the heart of things, Andrew Gilligan.

Andrew had his own legal representation at the inquiry, since he had different interests to those of the BBC as a whole. The BBC team was focused on overall organisational reputation and concerns, and tended to discuss matters as if he was a separate third party, treating criticism of Andrew as if it had no bearing on the corporation. This was an issue which concerned me and I did raise in discussion.

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Shortly before the Hutton Report eventually came out in January 2004, the BBC broadcast a special edition of Panorama, which examined the affair and contained a lot of trenchant criticism of the corporation.

As it happened I watched this in the company of an international group of journalists, including from the US, Canada, Brazil, Germany, Ghana, Bangladesh, Hong Kong and South Korea. I had then just started a BBC sabbatical as a Reuters Fellow at Oxford University. I thought the programme was an excellent piece of journalism, and the consensus in this diverse international group was that no other news organisation in the world could have made such an impartial and independent programme rigorously scrutinising its own internal travails. It was one of the moments when I felt proudest to work at the BBC, and it wasn’t even anything to do with me.

There had been some trepidation within the BBC Hutton team about what Panorama would say. This may have intensified when someone (I think one of the lawyers or press officers) asked Richard Sambrook what he expected from the programme. It was to be presented by the Panorama reporter, John Ware. Richard replied that ‘John will hold us up to the same unreasonably high standards that he holds everyone else up to’.

That stuck in my mind. It’s not a bad motto for investigative journalism and its valuable role in contributing to the overall welfare of society – to hold people in power up to the highest of standards, whoever they are, no fear or favour.

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More to come, including where Lord Hutton went wrong …