The BBC has developed a reputation for arrogantly brushing off criticism and failing to acknowledge and rectify mistakes before the consequent damage to its reputation has been done. This post suggests some possible reasons for this attitude, and also ways in which the BBC might behave in a less self-destructive manner in future.
Speaking on Channel 4 News, 20 May 2021, in the wake of the publication of the Dyson Report on the circumstances surrounding Martin Bashir’s Panorama interview with Princess Diana on 20 November 1995, Lord Grade had some very harsh words for the organisation whose Board of Governors he once chaired: “Their default position always is:
‘We’re never wrong, we’ve got it right. We don’t care what you say, we don’t care what the evidence is, we’re right. Now prove us wrong’. And you go through agony getting them to admit something they could have admitted on day one”.
On the other hand, once the BBC did finally admit that its handling of the Bashir case had been woeful, it immediately and publicly donned sackcloth and ashes, its own media editor stating that the Report revealed “a catalogue of moral, professional and editorial failures” (Gillett 2020), and Panorama and Newsnight offering brutally critical assessments of what had gone on in the organisation of which they were a part.
Howls of execration
Inevitably, the Report was the occasion for howls of anti-BBC execration by its numerous enemies in the national press. However, in its contrite response to the Report, the Corporation stood in the starkest possible contrast to the national press, most of whose major players have done their utmost to wreck any attempt to improve journalistic standards in their papers by traducing and undermining the Leveson Inquiry, then refusing point blank to accept its findings, and finally conspiring with government to ensure that its recommendations for strengthening press self-regulation, modest as they were, were never acted upon.
Entirely predictably, however, papers such as the Mail, with its twenty pages of anti-BBC bile on 21 May, used Leveson to defend themselves as brave defenders of media freedom and to attack the BBC with considerable venom. Thus in its Comment column, it raged that the BBC sanctimoniously denounces other media organisations at the first hint they may not be squeaky clean … What a hullabaloo the BBC raised when rogue elements [sic] of the red-top Press were accused of phone hacking. The blanket coverage it devoted to that scandal hastened the closure of the News of the World and triggered the Leveson Inquiry, with chilling implications for media freedom … Every allegation of dastardly Press practice drew howls of outrage from Television Centre. Today, though, we know the Emperor has no clothes. Behind the sermonising, the broadcaster has been exposed as nothing more than a pious hypocrite. While purporting to be a scourge of dishonesty, it has mirrored the worst excesses of the tabloid journalism it vilifies.
But not everything that appears in the Mail is wrong by definition, and that last sentence may just contain a grain of truth. (It also needs to be remembered that, whatever its motive, it was the Mail on Sunday that first drew attention to the Bashir problem, and as early as April 1996). Thus it has to be borne in mind that the interview happened when there was a media frenzy of gigantic proportions around Princess Diana. The main instigators of this frenzy, which ultimately led to her death, were, of course, British national newspapers, which renders their recent accusations that Bashir and the BBC were “hounding” her more than usually hypocritical and two-faced. In such a hyper-competitive media environment, Bashir’s use of subterfuge to obtain the interview, and the BBC hierarchy’s unwillingness to admit that he had done so, perhaps become more understandable, whilst of course remaining wholly unacceptable and indeed reprehensible.
The wider media landscape in which the BBC operates also needs to be borne in mind when examining a more recent story, namely the televised police raid on Sir Cliff Richard’s home, when, in pursuit of a tabloid-style scandal, the BBC made a number of very serious editorial misjudgements, refused to back down in the face of threats of legal action, and then found itself fighting a case it was almost bound to lose, which indeed it did.
In 2014, Dan Johnson, a north-of-England correspondent for BBC News, discovered that South Yorkshire Police (SYP) were investigating Cliff Richard who, it had been alleged anonymously, had abused a thirteen-year-old 30 years ago. He and SYP then entered into a highly controversial arrangement whereby they would inform him when Richard’s Sunningdale home was to be searched. This happened on 14 August, and the BBC hired a helicopter from which to film the raid. Johnson and a BBC crew were also sent to camp outside the gates. The BBC decided to broadcast the story on the One O’Clock News, but, in order to scoop rival outlets, did so without seeking a response from the singer. The decision was signed off by Fran Unsworth, then deputy to Director of News, James Harding.
No arrests were made and Richard was never charged, but the BBC refused to apologise and insisted that it had run a story that was in the public interest. Meanwhile the SYP settled out of court. Richard offered not to sue the BBC if it agreed to make a public apology, but its Director General, Lord Hall, refused. The case came to court in 2018 and Richard won £210,000 in damages after Mr Justice Mann ruled that the BBC had seriously violated his privacy and had done so “with a significant degree of breathless sensationalism” (his full judgment is at  Ch 169). He was awarded a further £20,000 in aggravated damages for the Corporation’s decision to nominate its story for the Royal Television Society’s scoop of the year award. The BBC spent £1.9m in legal costs.
‘A reasonable expectation of privacy’
English laws on contempt ban the media from publishing information that might seriously prejudice active legal proceedings, which means that news coverage of a case is limited once an individual is charged. But Mr Justice Mann argued that “a suspect has a reasonable expectation of privacy in relation to a police investigation”, raising concerns among many news outlets that the judgement severely limited the media’s ability to report the fact that an individual is under investigation by the police before any charges have actually been brought. Indeed, immediately after the judgement this very claim was made by Fran Unsworth, who stated that it created “new case law” and “represents a dramatic shift against press freedom and the long-standing ability of journalists to report on police investigations” (quoted in Mayhew 2018). Such concerns were echoed across the press (see, for example, Waterson 2018a; Tobitt 2018; Greenslade 2018).
Mr Justice Mann acknowledged that his judgment was “capable of having a significant impact on press reporting” but insisted that he was not changing or extending the law but merely balancing the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression in line with the requirements of the Human Rights Act 1998 and subsequent privacy judgements.
The public interest
In this respect the judge made it abundantly clear that the right to privacy could be over-ridden if the public interest required it in a specific case, but that in this particular case there was absolutely no such interest in revealing Richard’s identity. Cutting straight through the press hysteria and misinformation, David Elstein (2018) explained that, without any public interest,
the BBC’s decision to name Cliff Richard at all – never mind the helicopter hired to film the search of his flat, and the huge prominence given to the story – was “an invasion of Sir Cliff’s privacy rights in a big way”, made despite the BBC knowing well in advance that the police had decided not to publicise a name … The BBC tried to argue that investigations of historic sex offences were a subject of significant public interest which ought to be reported: and the judge agreed that the fact of an investigation might be a matter of public interest; but naming the target required a much higher level of significance, and in this case amounted to no more, in his view, than the BBC encouraging gossip-mongers in its pursuit of scoops and headlines.
As Mr Justice Mann himself put it: “I do not believe that this [public interest] justification was much in the minds of those at the BBC at the time. I think that they, or most of them, were far more impressed by the size of the story and that they had the opportunity to scoop their rivals”.
Hunting ‘celebrity paedos’
As the court’s judgement makes abundantly clear, the very manner in which the BBC covered the story compounded the damage done to Richard’s privacy. Mr Justice Mann noted that Gary Smith, the BBC UK News Editor, was “obsessed with the merits of scooping news rivals”, whilst Johnson “was capable of letting his enthusiasm get the better of him in pursuit of what he thought was a good story”. And the court heard that Johnson, in true tabloid style, had e-mailed colleagues that he was investigating “celebrity paedos” (quoted in Waterson 2018b). Mr Justice Mann stressed that he was awarding Richard far higher damages (£190,000) than those awarded to Max Mosley (£60,000) in his privacy action case against the News of the World because the invasion of privacy here was at least “twice as bad”, not least because of the world-wide publicity resulting from the dozens of news reports the BBC had broadcast, with great fanfare and huge prominence for the story on its bulletins. He concluded that “this was a very serious invasion of privacy rights, which had a very adverse effect”. Similar considerations lay behind the award for aggravated damages on account of the RTS nomination, the judge arguing that in promoting “its own [privacy] infringing activity in a way which demonstrates that it is extremely proud of it”, the BBC had caused Richard additional distress “both by demonstrating its pride and unrepentance and to a degree repeating the invasion of privacy with a metaphorical fanfare”.
What human rights?
One of the most extraordinary aspects of the Cliff Richard affair is that, when discussing coverage of the police raid, senior BBC staff such as Unsworth appear not to have taken into account the matter of Richard’s human rights. Tabloid newspapers are notorious for their hatred of the Human Rights Act, which they perceive – entirely correctly – as curbing their worst privacy-busting excesses, but the BBC’s actions seem to have been governed more by ignorance of human rights jurisprudence. As Mr Justice Mann noted: “The principal concern of the BBC seems to have been factual accuracy and defamation, and not privacy-related concerns. Apparently the lawyers had not flagged that up to her [Unsworth] as a specific risk”. Furthermore, during the case itself, the BBC claimed that a privacy suit could not include compensation for reputational damage, as this was the province of defamation law. However, the judge strongly disagreed arguing that:
Reputational harm can arise from matters of fact which are true but within the scope of a privacy right …. If the protection of reputation is part of the function of privacy law then that must be reflected in the right of the court to give damages which relate to loss of reputation ….The facts of this case (on the footing that the public interest in reporting does not outweigh Sir Cliff’s privacy rights) vividly demonstrate why damages should be available for an invasion of privacy resulting (inter alia) in damage to reputation.
‘We overdid it’
Eight days after the conclusion of the case, the BBC applied to Mr Justice Mann for permission to appeal, which he rejected. The BBC considered approaching the Court of Appeal directly, but then decided against it on the grounds that it would be extremely expensive, that there was no realistic chance of overturning the judgement and that it risked a public backlash if it went ahead (public opinion was firmly on Cliff Richard’s side). Tony Hall told the DCMS select committee: “I felt the case itself was not one I was happy to go to appeal on because of the way I thought we overdid it” (quoted in Davies 2018).
The temptation of tabloidization
Much has recently, albeit very belatedly, been written about the BBC increasingly shadowing the political agenda of the predominantly right-wing daily press. But what I have attempted to explore here are a number of other issues which arise for the BBC as a result of working in a journalistic environment dominated by newspapers whose values are not only different from but antithetical to those of public service broadcasting.
The most obvious of these issues is the temptation of tabloidization. The effects of this process inside the BBC have been illuminatingly discussed by Corporation veteran Kevin Marsh, who notes that “around the turn the century, a new strand of thinking gained traction at the top of the BBC. The idea that we were too cautious. That we didn’t break enough stories and weren’t taking on the press as aggressively as we should” (2012: 81). Such an idea was supported by the new Director General, Greg Dyke, and also by Rod Liddle, the editor of Today from 1998 to 2002. The latter argued that the BBC should be doing more original, “exclusive” journalism and that “in order to deliver it, Today, needed to import some of the thinking, and some of the people, from what we used go call Fleet Street … The idea of a more tabloid agenda, ‘breaking more stories’, appealed to Liddle” (ibid.: 81-2).
One of the “imports”, notoriously, was Andrew Gilligan, formerly of the Sunday Telegraph, whose story on 29 May 2003 alleging that the government had “sexed up” a dossier about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was to lead to the Hutton Inquiry and the resignation of both Dyke and the BBC’s chairman Gavyn Davies. At the Inquiry an e-mail emerged from Kevin Marsh, who had over from Liddle at Today, to Stephen Mitchell, Head of Radio News, in which he stated that ‘this story was a good piece of investigative journalism, marred by flawed reporting – our biggest millstone has been his loose use of language and lack of judgment in some of his phraseology’. However, the BBC insisted on defending Gilligan’s report, and Marsh’s reservations were ignored.
Choosing the right battles
One of the paradoxes here, of course, is that press which the BBC sometimes seems so keen to ape is also the Corporation’s sworn enemy. But perhaps if the BBC competed less with newspapers on their own terms, they might regard it as less of a rival and moderate their hostility somewhat. On the other hand, the reasons for their hatred are as much political and ideological as economic, so this might not make an appreciable difference. But whatever the case, it must be extraordinarily galling for the BBC to be the daily target of vituperation from newspapers whose own journalistic standards are so shockingly low, and this may tempt the BBC into failing to respond to valid criticisms from this quarter, or indeed to digging in over-defensively when such criticisms are made – thus contributing to the situation outlined by Lord Grade at the start of this piece.
In my view, the BBC actually needs to be far more combative when it come to dealing with the press – but it also needs to choose it battles very carefully and, above all, to avoid offering hostages to fortune of the kind discussed in this chapter.
Davies, Caroline (2018) ‘BBC coverage of Cliff Richard raid was over the top, says Tony Hall’, Guardian, 11 September. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/sep/11/bbc-to-cut-back-online-services-to-fight-netflix-say-reports
Elstein, David (2018) ‘The BBC and Cliff Richard: what threat to press liberty?’, openDemocracy, 27 July. Available at https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/ourbeeb/bbc-and-cliff-richard-what-threat-to-press-liberty/
Gillett, Francesca (2020) ‘Martin Bashir: inquiry criticises BBC over “deceitful” Diana interview’, BBC News, 20 May. Available online at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-57189371
Greenslade, Roy (2018), ‘The Cliff Richard ruling is a chilling blow to press freedom’, Guardian, 18 July. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/18/cliff-richard-bbc-press-freedom-privacy
Marsh, Kevin (2012) Stumbling over Truth: The Inside Story of the ‘Sexed Up’ Dossier, Hutton and the BBC, London: Biteback Publishing.
Mayhew, Freddy (2018) ‘BBC News director says Sir Cliff ruling marks “dramatic shift against press freedom” as Society of Editors calls High Court judgement “worrying”’, Press Gazette, 18 July. Available online at https://www.pressgazette.co.uk/bbc-news-director-says-sir-cliff-ruling-marks-dramatic-shift-against-press-freedom-as-society-of-editors-calls-high-court-judgement-worrying/
Tobitt, Charlotte (2018) ‘Newspapers back BBC over Sir Cliff Privacy ruling creating “new right to anonymity” for police suspects in “dark day for journalism”’, Press Gazette, 19 July. Available online at https://www.pressgazette.co.uk/newspapers-back-bbc-over-sir-cliff-privacy-ruling-creating-new-right-to-anonymity-for-police-suspects-in-dark-day-for-journalism/
Waterson, Jim (2018a) ‘Media experts alarmed at consequences of Cliff Richard ruling’, Guardian, 18 July. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/jul/18/media-experts-alarmed-at-consequences-of-cliff-richard-ruling
Waterson, Jim (2018b) ‘BBC reporter “guessed” Cliff Richard was subject of sexual assault allegation’, Guardian, 18 April. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/apr/18/bbc-reporter-guessed-cliff-richard-was-subject-of-sexual-assault-investigation
Julian Petley is emeritus and honorary professor of journalism at Brunel University London His most recent book is the second edition of Culture Wars: The Media and the British Left (Routledge 2019), co-written with James Curran and Ivor Gaber. He is a member of the editorial board of the British Journalism Review and the principal editor of the Journal of British Cinema and Television. A former print journalist, he now contributes to online publications such as Inforrm, Byline Times and openDemocracy.
This piece appeared in the newly published book, “The BBC at nearly 100. Will it survive”, edited by John Mair and published by Bite Sized books. It is reproduced with permission and thanks.