Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The BBC and Newsnight: a very personal view.

You will have to allow me a little digression this week. I have spent ten years working for the BBC, seven of which for Newsnight. My editor on that programme was, for a lot of my time there, George Entwistle, now ex-BBC Director General. George has resigned and both the BBC and Newsnight are facing a huge storm (I have inserted the link to a ...yes, a BBC website, with all  the details, here and also below); I just wonder what might happen in the coming months. If I look at the state of most public broadcasters across Europe, the quality of their journalism and how they have bowed to political and commercial pressure, I want to cry. Is the BBC heading in that direction?

There are three reasons why what is happening in these weeks at the BBC fills me with sadness but also with anger.


What was a terrible story on child abuse (whose ramifications would have anyway involved the BBC as the accused abuser was the BBC star Jimmy Savile) has become a BBC story; this is partly normal as the Corporation has always attracted a lot of attention and it is correctly under huge public scrutiny. But in the last decade this scrutiny has been coupled with a very clear agenda: anti BBC media - without naming names- have been actively campaigning to reduce the credibility of BBC with the final aim of taking away what they feel is an unfair advantage ie the fact that the BBC receives public money.  I strongly believe in television and radio as public services, hence publicly financed. The idea is that the quality of its production is partly linked to the fact that the BBC has to provide services to all and to justify its existence - and its expenses. This latest crisis is the perfect opportunity to push the anti-BBC campaign further, to prove that the money is not well spent because the BBC has lost the trust of its public. If this campaign were to succeed then it would be the end of the BBC as we know it and have grown to love. Having said this, mistakes have been made and big ones too. But please let's not forget what this is all about and what the risks are.


Still, the management structure at the BBC is far from perfect and in need of reform; plus, there has always been (like in any other news broadcasters, actually) a strong tension between "hacks (journalists) and suits (management)": the BBC inadeguate answer has been to maintain the independence and the integrity of the news by creating a wall between what is news and of public interest and what is the Corporation and its interests . This tension and this separation become, as we have seen, a bombshell when something goes wrong. This wall was the one that led to the 'lack of curiosity' that has been attributed to the now former Director General George Entwistle; as a former journalist himself, he did not want to be seen as putting pressure on the editorial decisions of the news teams. He must be spending his time asking himself 'why the hell did I not ask the Head of News- when she told me Newsnight was investigating Jimmy Savile- what the investigation was about?' and wondering how Newsnight could have made such a cock-up, airing a report that wrongly accused (even if his name was not mentioned) a former Tory politician of being a paedophile. We will all be wondering what kind of Director General he could have been since he did not have the time to do much. I was personally very sad to see George going; I understand why he had to go;  I really respected him as a journalist then (always pushing for strong and insightful journalism) as I do respect him now that he has taken the decision to resign. Would he have tried to tackle the hack-suit issue and reform the management system while increasing further the standards and the independence of its journalists? Or am I kidding myself? Truth be told, what was always said at the BBC was that a good journalist is not necessarily a good manager; in fact the opposite might be true. Interesting times ahead: who (a hack or a suit) will be chosen as new permanent Director General? and will the BBC Trust suggest a separation (yet more managers though?) between the Editor in Chief and the CEO? Fingers crossed.


What are the consequences of this crisis likely to mean for investigative journalism and for Newsnight in particular? As I write, there are talks of disciplinary actions against the journalists that authorised the Newsnight report to go on air. And the new acting editor of Newsnight has already been told to stop investigations. The programme itself might be cancelled or renamed. I can see the reasons behind all this, but all the same I fear that there will be deeper implications: will a journalist now be much more fearful of investigating a story, of criticising companies, celebrities or politicians? Will the BBC hesitate before allowing a report to be transmitted or - in the attempt to safeguard itself -soften the content? Will it spend more money on controlling rather than reporting? I sincerely hope not.

Newsnight (click on the name for the link to the history of the programme and if you, unlike me, manage to see it properly do watch the Newsnight at 20 film) has been doing some amazing journalism, not only investigative by the way, for more than 30 years; maybe a breath of fresh air is a good thing for the BBC as a whole, but let's make sure that this new air is not in reality a Trojan horse- good and useful on the outside but filled with enemies of true journalism inside. 

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