There are two BBCs. First, there is the journalism of Ten O’Clock News, the Today program, news for nations and regions, and Panorama. Then there is the programming side of the BBC which enchants us with Strictly Come Dancing, Fleabag, Line of Duty and Sir David Attenborough.
It is BBC journalism that too often fails the business. The Iraq War aired on the questionable record that ended with the death of Dr. David Kelly; the inability to convey his own Jimmy Savile exhibition; the unforgivable and mistaken betrayal of Lord McAlpine; coverage of the arrest of (the innocent) Sir Cliff Richard – the list goes on.
To that accusation sheet must be added widespread accusations of bias over all-party election coverage, Brexit bias, lopsided coverage of the Middle East, Scottish politics and a host of other topics. These issues remain unresolved, and the BBC’s journalistic trailer moves on.
I urge the government and the board of directors of the BBC and Ofcom, during next year’s BBC mid-term review, to consider delegating the governance of BBC journalism from the lead board to a new independent board (not appointed by the government), composed only of members qualified by their experience in senior editorial positions.
This new editorial board should be chaired by a specialized and qualified editorial personality chosen from the main board. (There are two highly qualified ex-journalists on the current board of directors). The task of this new editorial board would be to oversee and govern all BBC journalism, with the managing director (the editor-in-chief of the BBC) and his senior editorial staff regularly and directly accountable to this board. It should include whistleblowing in its remit.
Historically, the problem for the BBC’s main and lay council has always been that it had too large an agenda to allow for effective review. This gives the executive tremendous power to steer the board towards whatever outcome it chooses – the Yes, Minister Wholesale playbook.
But unless you have been a journalist, how do you know which questions and which “additions” to ask? You wouldn’t expect non-clinicians to cross-examine, say, a malpractice surgeon.
The BBC has always suffered from a board of directors too easily embarrassed by the executive. Journalism can be a minefield, and it often is for the BBC. The succession of high profile failures is just the tip of a very large iceberg. How many horrors have not made the headlines, one wonders?
The destructive culture within BBC journalism must be reversed
There is a long-standing, deeply rooted and destructive culture in BBC journalism that needs to be reversed. It starts with their default position, whenever they are challenged, which they don’t have and can never be wrong. An example: It took three years for Primark for the BBC to admit that the images broadcast by the company alleging child slavery in the production of clothing for their stores were faked. It was evident from day one that the reporter’s email confirming he had secured footage of child slaves working for Primark predated the actual video shot by several days. Clearly rigged – any journalist could have spotted it. I could cite other cases from personal experience.
You can add arrogance to the wrong leaf of growing costs. Politicians, industry executives and government officials are expected to show up when they receive the BBC summons to be called to account on their airwaves. If they are refused, they do not hesitate to think that the refusal is an affront. In the last general election, Andrew Neil complained on camera about Boris Johnson’s refusal to appear on his show. The fact that its publisher allowed this indulgence on the air reflects the arrogance of the BBC. Neil was just expressing a BBC attitude – you come when we call.
We hear BBC journalists, and rightly so, harass interviewees about their lack of accountability and transparency. But it sounds hollow after the Dyson report, which highlights breathtaking hypocrisy in the corporate BBC, which is anything but transparent and accountable itself. Remember, it took 26 years for the truth about Bashir’s deception to be established. (Big tick, by the way, for Tim Davie, the new kind of director, me who commissioned Lord Dyson.)
The BBC believes that acknowledging your mistakes, and quickly, is a sign of weakness. But it is a sign of strength and we have to make them understand that. The frankness, honesty and transparency they expect from those they interview must also apply to the BBC itself. It is a deeply rooted culture that will be difficult to change. A new editorial board is the best way to start this process.
The governance change I am proposing, based on a lifetime in broadcasting, would, for the first time, create a systematic and direct line of accountability from BBC journalism to a specialized and independent board of directors, chaired by a member of the duly qualified lead counsel. This will create a sense of responsibility on a daily basis as journalists do their job.
The editorial board’s mission, always after transmission, never before, would require it to be proactive in reviewing coverage after major events. How did the BBC cover Brexit? Was general election coverage consistent and balanced? Did the BBC’s Covid coverage meet the needs of the public? Does BBC Scotland’s treatment of the SNP meet its demands for impartiality? Did the coverage of the conflict in the Middle East meet the BBC’s highest standards of accuracy and impartiality? Etc. He would also be well qualified to “sniff out” anything that is doubtful the board deems worthy of digging into.
By publishing its criticisms and judgments, and referring wrongdoing to the main committee for action, the editorial board would, for the first time in the history of the company, make BBC journalism truly and publicly accountable to a group of peers, independent of management and, of course, of government.
I hope that the BBC’s board of directors and the government will consider this reform proposal in the run-up to the BBC mid-term review next year. The time for spinning is over. The time has come for a reformed culture led by governance reform, before another journalistic “failure” brings the whole house down.
BBC journalism is too important to our democratic blood circulation to risk another serious mistake.
Lord Grade is a former chairman of the BBC