To pre-order, click here.
This is the fourth and final extract from my memoir that I'm posting ahead of today's publication. As of tomorrow, it should be available either from your local bookshop or online.
The BBC excels at many things: world-class TV drama, innovative entertainment formats (Dr Who, Top Gear, Strictly Come Dancing, Bake-Off), wildlife documentaries and much, much more. Its programmes – Test Match Special, BBC Proms, The Archers, EastEnders – enrich the nation in a way that no other institution can dream of. In 2012, when the think tank Chatham House commissioned a survey to find out which institutions voters thought best served the UK’s national interest, the BBC came second, with just the armed forces ahead of it.
But it is also in a league of its own when it comes to corporate meltdowns, and I had the great misfortune to be granted a ringside seat at far too many of these ghastly displays of managerial incompetence. All institutions get things wrong, but what the BBC wins gold medals in is getting things wrong when it gets something wrong.
Exhibit One: the Hutton Report into the death of the government scientist David Kelly in 2003 after he was named as the source for a BBC report that said the government had ‘sexed up’ a dossier about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Lord Hutton was an appeal court judge and former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland who had been appointed to investigate the circumstances surrounding Dr Kelly’s apparent suicide – and he came down spectacularly hard on the BBC while largely exonerating the government.
My conclusion, more than a decade later? When two alpha male elephants (in this case, Alastair Campbell and Greg Dyke) clash in the jungle, a lot of lesser creatures get hurt. Both men were spoiling for a fight – Campbell believed that the BBC’s journalists had been consistently hostile to [Tony] Blair and his support for the US-led invasion of Iraq, and Dyke was determined to show Campbell that the BBC was not prepared to be intimidated. His mistake – and it was a serious one – was to fight the battle on the ground of [Andrew] Gilligan’s reporting.
Exhibit Two: Sachsgate, when the actor and comedian Russell Brand and the radio and TV presenter Jonathan Ross lost their senses and broadcast on Radio 2 a series of voicemail messages that they had left for the then 78-year-old actor Andrew Sachs (best known as the Spanish waiter Manuel, in Fawlty Towers). On one of the messages, Ross could be heard saying: ‘He [Brand] fucked your granddaughter.’ Although the programme had been pre-recorded, no one who heard it ahead of transmission thought it presented any problems.
Interestingly, after it was broadcast, there were no immediate complaints. But when, a week later, the Mail on Sunday drew attention to what had been said, the complaints came flooding in. Russell Brand resigned, as did the much-respected head of Radio 2, Lesley Douglas, and Ross was suspended without pay for twelve weeks. The BBC went into one of its meltdowns and eventually issued an apology, calling the voicemail messages ‘grossly offensive’ and a ‘serious breach of editorial standards’.
But it all went on much too long. The BBC’s response to the furore, artificially fanned though it might have been, was far too late in coming. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Culture Secretary had all had their say by the time the corporation had got its act together, once again leaving the impression that too many well-paid executives were spending too long trying to duck their responsibilities.
When the director-general, Mark Thompson, agreed to be interviewed on The World Tonight, I questioned him as robustly as I would have done had I not been working for him. When it was over, he smiled wanly at me across the studio desk and commented: ‘You guys really enjoy this sort of thing, don’t you?’
He was wrong. I hated it when the BBC fell short. But what use is a BBC interviewer who is not prepared to ask tough questions of his own bosses?
Exhibit Three: the Savile crisis. Yet again, the BBC went into meltdown after its shambolic decision-making processes proved to be utterly inadequate. There is no need to rake over the sordid details: an investigation by Newsnight into allegations that Jimmy Savile was a serial child abuser was halted, apparently because the programme’s editor was unconvinced by the available evidence, and then, in the midst of a gruesomely public inquest into his decision, the same programme broadcast similar allegations against another public figure, only for those allegations to turn out to be totally unfounded.
It was a catalogue of ineptitude that would have shamed the most shambolic student newspaper. For an institution that likes to think of itself as the world’s most respected broadcaster, it was an unparalleled disaster. What made it particularly toxic was that although Newsnight’s Savile investigation was axed, two tribute programmes went ahead after his death, despite misgivings about Savile’s ‘dark side’ having been expressed in internal BBC emails. It still seems to me that the real scandal was that executives who had worked closely with Savile over many years, and who were well aware of the suspicions over his sexual behaviour, authorised the transmission of those programmes.
I find that much harder to excuse than an editorial misjudgement over the strength or otherwise of a complex journalistic investigation. No editor’s judgement is infallible, and as I had worked closely with the Newsnight editor, Peter Rippon, during his time at the World Service, I was convinced that he had made his decision, rightly or wrongly, in good faith.
Perhaps I have a weakness for thinking the best of people – except when I am interviewing them, naturally – but after more than two decades at the BBC, I came to the conclusion that with very few exceptions, it is run by good, intelligent people with all the right instincts. Sometimes they are asked to do jobs for which they are ill-suited and sometimes they are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Greg Dyke was not temperamentally suited to run a major national institution, and George Entwistle was engulfed by crisis before he had had a chance to find his way around. Both men made mistakes, and they paid the price.
It does not make them villains.