Truth and the BBC

The BBC was profoundly damaged by the Blair government's successful attack upon it over Iraq. Since then its senior managers have regarded truth as something to be handled not investigated. Could this loss of integrity underly its recent disasters?

At the heart of whether the BBC is trusted is its relationship to truthfulness - I’m not talking about ‘The Truth’ as if there is only One. But truthfulness is something shared and the disasters that have just taken place in the leadership of the Corporation have larger implications for the UK's official culture. Taking a closer look at what led to the loss of its most recent Director General has implications for wider British politics.

I have been thinking about this for two reasons. First – shameless plug alert – I am preparing to speak briefly at openDemocracy’s upcoming event on the BBC at the Café Oto in London this Monday. It struck me as odd the way that the Leveson affair has proceeded in parallel with the BBC crisis, with little acknowledgment that they can't occur in parallel universes unaware of each other. For example, many people in the BBC must have known that the hacking scandal went further than the two News International ‘rogue reporters’ who were jailed. If the BBC had researched and reported the story, could the Murdoch cover up have proceeded as it did? Privately I've been told that the BBC was pressured not to support Nick Davis's Guardian exposés. Think about that if it's true.

This drew me to re-read David Elstein’s excellent forensic summary of what happened with the appointment of Tony Hall as the new Director General, after the ‘second Newsnight’ led to the disastrous broadcasting of false accusations about Alistair McAlpine and then to George Entwistle’s resignation after a mere 54 days at the helm. This is what David says, it’s detailed and clear:

The Trust’s press release claimed that Hall’s background in news will help allay concerns about perceived BBC weakness in that area. This suggests the Trust have not understood the BBC’s internal report about what went wrong with the second Newsnight.

Essentially, that fatally flawed item fell through the cracks in the news review system that Entwistle had instituted, with the Trust’s support, after the row over the non-broadcast of the Savile item had erupted. He established two reporting lines – one for all non-Savile items, passing through the normal chain of command, and another for Savile-related items, with the top two news executives sidelined, because of their involvement in the Pollard review.

Amidst the confusion that resulted (who on Newsnight should decide whether a story on child abuse in North Wales was Savile-related or not?) it was not until lunch-time on the day of transmission of the McAlpine story that it was decided it was Savile-related. The stand-by team, therefore, rather than the established news team, became the route for clearance. This culminated in sign-off by a former marketing executive who just happened to be on the news management board as the head of BBC Northern Ireland. 

Contrary to the impression created by the Trust, there was no issue with the normal management of the news empire as far as the McAlpine item was concerned: they had just been by-passed, on Entwistle’s orders.

The implication is that had the “normal management” of the Newsnight package remained in place, the story would most likely have been checked.

I have no quarrel with Elstein’s analysis. But pause on that fateful decision about switching the chain of authorisation. What was in the minds of those who made this decision? Could they have been thinking that the story had still not been checked in the most elementary way? Also, if the usual rather than the stand-by team faced the prospect of responsibility for it right up up to mid-day of the Friday when it was transmitted, why had they not already taken the precaution of asking whether the story had been checked? My questions are a version of 'Who guards the guardians?', not about who decided who would be the decision makers. I am not trying to get at the individuals (who I'm sure were doing the best they could). It's a question about their culture, of the assumptions and presumptions that shaped their decisions.

It seems to me that everyone involved in the BBC’s management of the story simply assumed it was true, not just the reporter Angus Stickler.

For why else would you bother to argue over the chain of command of a story if there was a good chance that it didn't even 'have legs' and there was nothing to debate?

Ideally, the culture of news at the BBC as with any public interest broadcaster should be twofold: first, so far as party policy issues are concerned, to give a fair account of the arguments of all sides, and second, in relation to the facts, to have a duty to find out what is true, an obligation to report this without fear or favour and therefore a sacred duty to test and establish whether a story has integrity.

OK - this may go way too far! But in this case the failure of those involved to drive investigation can't just blame lack of resources on the front line of reporting. The mangement simply assumed that a now retired political figure was a paedophile and that the issue they had to manage concerned whether or not to transmit this, and if so exactly how. 

If so, their culture, to put it crudely, did not demand an obligation to be an independent provider of tested information, but rather to be the managers of what to broadcast irrespective of whether it is true or important. 

This is a legacy of Iraq. In 2003, the BBC was strung up on the rack of the Hutton Inquiry because it broadcast a report by Andrew Gilligan, which said that the Blair government’s dossier claiming Iraq had weapons of mass destruction was “sexed up”. We now know the story was wholly accurate and well sourced. But the BBC was massively punished: both its then Director General, Greg Dyke, and his Chairman were defenestrated.

The Corporation that emerged believed that it had been a mistake to broadcast the item. But not because it was false. The BBC, in whom we trust, had been bullied and bent to the will of a duplicitous political class.

I came up against this over the creation of a database state under New Labour and mention it in my initial account of being a Co-Director with Henry Porter of the Convention of Modern Liberty. What we experienced had parallels with how Euro-Sceptics felt about the BBC as set out by Peter Oborne (also a participant in the Café Oto event) and Frances Weaver in a CPS pamphlet.

Fast forward to the 'first Newsnight', which developed and then failed to transmit an exposé of Jimmy Savile as a suspected abuser. It would have been broadcast shortly before the BBC was scheduled to transmitted laudatory tributes to Savile in its Christmas programme. Even if the Newsnight investigation had been delayed rather than spiked and ordered to be more thorough, the tributes could not have gone ahead. One feels that at the time the management breathed a sigh of relief that the tributes got their viewers and felt vindicated about stopping the Newsnight broadcast – irrespective of its truthfulness.

The BBC that emerged from Hutton was a Corporation that had been taught that the truthfulness of a story is not a reason to broadcast it, and indeed might even be a good reason not to broadcast it.

The public shared well-articulated concerns about the threat to our liberty posed by the databse state. The BBC decided that even debating the threat of the database state was not important, even though undeniably true.

The whole point of the Hutton exercise was to teach the BBC that it was obliged to cover up; it was rewarded for doing so, on the expenses scandal and on banking, to take two further examples. Then, out of the blue, it finds itself punished over Savile for not covering things up. The management was caught in a classic double bind. Technically a double-bind is when you are punished for doing something – and punished also when you don’t. It can generate all kinds of mental disturbance, from resentful passivity to hyperactive avoidance. 

Hutton inculcated a culture not of truth seeking or investigation in the BBC, but of truth management. The fact that something is probably true is not a reason to broadcast it. Sexed up dossier: true; broadcast, bad. Threats to our liberty: true; not broadcast, good. Reasons to be Euro-sceptic possibly valid; not broadcasting them as such, good. Mounting evidence that Savile is an abuser: true; not broadcasting them, good. Whoops, change that: bad!

Would it be good or bad to transmit the paedophile story? You can see that the BBC mangement had become dislocated from reality. Any smart person in it could have said, "Hey, is it double checked?". Mark Thompson who apparently has the qui vive to run the New York Times didn't use it to see that the Savile story was dangerous and important. I'm not saying that there was a conspiracy against the truth in the upper echelons of the BBC. Rather, post-Hutton, people who bang on about veracity are embarrassing, what matters is not whether a story is true but how to manage it (Who says it? Does the government regard it as important? Will we be attacked by News International/the Daily Mail for transmitting it?).

Suddenly, with Savile, the issue concerned the BBC itself and it was off the management sat-nav and the system froze. It could not be revived to focus on the McAlpine false allegations. Left to a managment culture trained to be averse to investigating the truth no one even said, "Really, are you sure?".

Can Tony Hall return the BBC to the integrity and self-belief that it had shown over the Iraq dossier? Can he undo the effect of Hutton? It's a tall order and, as we have been arguing in OurBeeb, one that can only succeed if he can open it up to trust the public, not least with dangerously creative programmes about our own society - as well as the First World War.

Tomorrow's discussion at the Café Oto will, I hope, go wider than this. Brian Eno, in his contribution to the OurBeeb forum, see the five minute video on Culture, Creativity and the Digital Commons, talks about the positive importance of the BBC for music in Britain. Its influence has a 'hegemonic role'; which means that it is in a wider sense it is own truth - it does define ours - what it says and does is so because the BBC says and does it. This is an awesome, shaping responsibility and perhaps the main reason why the BBC should not be left to its own autistic devices. 

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy