The calls for thorough reform and change at the BBC, which have been often repeated in the past few weeks, not least by the chairman of the BBC’s own governing trust, Lord Chris Patten, are frequent and alarming in their imprecision. Part of what makes journalism good is accountability; part of what makes it fail is clouded judgment and ill-judged reactions to external pressures. Creating a culture that supports both within a newsroom is not something easily imposed from outside. It requires not just the articulation of a vision but also its rigorous daily application in practice. Good journalists and great news organizations make occasional mistakes.
The original error from the point of view of the original scandal was the decision of a news program not to run what now seems a good story. The critical and fatal error was to run a story the BBC should never have allowed on air.
Breaking a big story is like pulling the pin on a grenade. It takes judgment and courage, or stupidity, to toss significant facts into the public domain. Until it detonates, its collateral damage is unknowable—and once it does, the consequences are unpredictable. Editors are paid almost entirely for knowing when to pull the pin and what to do at the point of impact. Big stories that are mishandled have terrible consequences for peoples’ lives, and we see this played out in the aftermath of the Savile affair. Nowhere is more keenly aware of this than the news department of the BBC. To understand the BBC’s journalistic reflex, the culture and atmosphere of enterprise reporting at the corporation, one must really understand what happened during the summer of 2003—a far bigger crisis, with much more serious consequences.
That May, BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan went on the air on the Radio 4 morning program Today to discuss allegations he had from a source that the UK Government had inflated claims about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in order to justify the March 2003 invasion of the country. The allegation was repeated twice more by other BBC journalists in subsequent days.
Who was the source of the story? Speculation was rife among journalists and was allegedly fed by briefings from government. This led to the outing of a respected government scientist, Dr. David Kelly. Kelly was a weapons expert and someone who often briefed journalists, although on this occasion not with direct authority.
At a foreign affairs Parliamentary select committee meeting in a sweltering room on July 15, 2003, Kelly was grilled by members of Parliament in a hearing that was broadcast live. The transcript makes for uncomfortable reading—two days later, on July 17, Kelly went on a short walk from his home into nearby woods and took his own life. For those who covered the story, it is unlikely they will ever forget hearing the first report of Kelly’s death.
The subsequent inquiry into the suicide of David Kelly, led by Lord Brian Hutton, cleared the government of wrongdoing and underhanded tactics in revealing the source and heavily criticized the BBC’s “defective” editorial processes. For many at the BBC, and for some of us who had closely observed and reported the events, the complete exoneration of the government seemed breathtaking, but the immediate and lasting effect was to immortalize the BBC’s culpability in journalism and process.
The Hutton Inquiry resulted in the resignation of BBC director general Greg Dyke and chairman Gavyn Davies, a major reshuffle in its news department, and a cloud that has shadowed its journalism since. Mark Thompson was the man brought in to steady the ship, and part of his reshuffle of the BBC’s news and current affairs division saw the rise of a more risk-averse approach. Ironically, some of the most able journalists at the BBC at the time, including head of news Richard Sambrook and deputy head of news Mark Damazer, are no longer at the Corporation. The oral history of firestorms, mistakes made, and lessons learned is a really vital part of institutional strength in news. When those who hold it leave, you lose something elemental about your culture.