There is no such thing as a flawless newsroom. Ask the late great Ben Bradlee, hero of Watergate, whose Washington Post had to hand back its Pulitzer after a reporter, Janet Cooke, was found to have invented an award-winning story. Ask former BBC director general Greg Dyke about Andrew Gilligan, whose early-morning imprecisions toppled both the DG and the chair.
Ask Howell Raines, whose brief spell as executive editor of the New York Times came to an abrupt end after an internal investigation found that a reporter, Jayson Blair, had been plagiarising and making stuff up. Ask the Independent, whose editorial halo was dented by Johann Hari, another plagiarist.
Ask Andy Coulson, who ended up in jail. Ask Rebekah Brooks, CEO of News UK, who stood trial at the Old Bailey for the criminal activities going on in one of her newsrooms. Ask Rupert Murdoch, whose multiple news outlets have been plagued by countless ethical failings over decades. Ask the New Republic, or Rolling Stone or Der Spiegel. Or ask Charlie Wilson, former editor of the Times, whose unhappy job it was to fire a reporter who had been inventing quotes.
The miscreant sacked by Wilson, one Boris Johnson, was given a second chance by the Telegraph. The Independent’s correspondent in Brussels, David Usborne, told Johnson’s biographer, Sonia Purnell, of his coverage of the EU: “He wasn’t making things up necessarily, just over-egging to a degree that was dishonest.” John Palmer, the Guardian’s then correspondent, was blunter: “As a journalist he is thoroughly irresponsible, inventing stories.”
And now Johnson, faker and over-egger, holds the future of the BBC in his hands. The clever liar is every editor’s nightmare. Lord Dyson’s report is, rightly, scathing about the credibility of Martin Bashir, who has been found to have used deceit and fakery to win the confidence of the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
The BBC was not the only organisation taken in by Bashir: he enjoyed some considerable success – as well as toe-curling lows – working in the US for ABC and MSNBC. But the BBC was shown by Dyson to have failed lamentably to investigate the clues about his deception. The subsequent cover-up led, incredibly, to Bashir being rehired by the corporation in 2016. It is a sorry story, to match any of the journalistic failures listed above. It has been leapt on with some glee by people who do not wish the BBC well, including some who would benefit commercially if it were to wither away.
That does not in any way detract from the gravity of the BBC’s failings over Bashir. And one should acknowledge the dogged work of some other news organisations – including the Mail on Sunday, Channel 4 and the Daily Mail – in pursuing the Bashir story in the teeth of some obstruction by the BBC. The question is, what should happen now? A crisis generally demands a swift and decisive response. Heads need to roll, structures need to change. But nearly all the senior executives involved in the Bashir saga have moved on or died since the Diana programme was aired more than 25 years ago. And there have been several major governance changes in the intervening quarter of a century – most recently, handing editorial supervision of the BBC to the independent regulator, Ofcom.
How’s that going? A reading of the first three reports into the BBC suggests the regulator has found little to trouble it. In 2017/18, there were 1,673 content complaints: just one (to do with Lord Lawson and climate change) was upheld. In the same year, the regulator examined 38 complaints about unfair treatment or privacy infringements: one (relating to a SNP party political broadcast) was upheld.
The following year, Ofcom found one significant breach of the broadcasting code and one finding of unfairness (relating to Andrew Neil and Scottish independence). No accusations of bias were upheld.
In the most recent report, 2019-20, Ofcom upheld no general complaints; no complaints about fairness and privacy; and no breaches of impartiality or due accuracy. Regular surveys by Ofcom find that the BBC is highly regarded for providing high-quality, trustworthy and accurate news.
That’s a record any Fleet Street title would gladly boast about. And yet the furious commentary of the past few days would have us believe that the BBC is in dire need of reform. One suggestion, floated by the Conservative peer Lord Grade, is for an independent editorial board to oversee its journalism. A sort of AC-12 for W1A.
But who would chair such an entity? We know that Johnson would like Ofcom to be led by Paul Dacre, the former editor of the Daily Mail. But not even Dacre’s most fervent admirers would associate his view of journalism with the word “impartiality”. And his newsrooms (print and online) accounted for 36% of all complaints to the former press regulator, the PCC, just before it was wound up. Between 2011 and 2013, the Mail and Mail Online were found to have breached the editors’ code of practice no fewer than 47 times – easily double the Sun, in second place with 19.
Meanwhile, Mr Justice Fancourt is the latest judge to oversee hundreds of alleged phone-hacking cases against the Sun, News of the World and Mirror Group titles, which are still wending their way through the courts. The Murdoch organisation, so keen on transparency from the BBC, is settling each and every case in the hope that none will go to trial, leading to inevitable public questions about who knew what, when? If you are looking for systematic lawlessness and corporate cover-ups, News Group Newspapers is a better starting point than the BBC.
This has been a bleak week for the BBC. The Bashir saga is shaming. But we can’t allow the future of the corporation to be defined by its enemies. And the prime minister would do well to approach any questions about journalistic ethics with a degree of humility.
• Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of the Guardian, is principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and author of News and How to Use it