Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

Probing questions

By Kate Bulkley

Royal Television Society

April, 2004

An RTS forum asked if Hutton has led to self censorship and a loss of confidence in TV news and current affairs – and whether broadcasters will back their journalists with the resources to go on digging for the truth

The Times and the Hitler diaries. CNN and Tailwind. The New York Times and Jason Blair. Every so often a major news organisation makes a big and high-profile mistake. None of us is immune. However, what really matters is what happens next.” Richard Sambrook, director of BBC News, in an email to staff.

Stewart Purvis, the former chief executive of ITN, read Sambrook’s email to a packed house that included the crème of current-affairs producers and investigative journalists. He was opening a lively debate on the state of investigative journalism in the wake of Hutton, which culminated in a damning critique of Andrew Gilligan.

The harsh conclusions about the BBC’s journalism in the law lord’s report into the circumstances surrounding the death of weapons inspector David Kelly have rocked both the BBC and investigative journalists in newsrooms across the country.

Purvis asked Stephen Whittle, controller of editorial policy at the BBC, to give a “situation report” of the steps the BBC is taking following the headline-grabbing resignations of both chairman Gavyn Davies and director-general Greg Dyke.

Whittle said a “two-pronged process” was underway, examining what “editorial lessons the BBC might or might not need to learn” post-Hutton. The process is about giving “a load of anxious people inside of the BBC” some kind of resolution, said Whittle, adding somewhat defensively: “I’m sure [it] will reaffirm what they do.”

Purvis quoted from the minutes of a July BBC Board of Governors meeting (made public thanks to the Hutton Inquiry) that said “a divide was perceived (among the governors) between radicals and traditionalists who hankered back to the days of Pathé News.” Purvis pressed Whittle, and asked when Pathé News standards – reminiscent of the “Mr Chamberlain tell us about your trip to Munich” line of soft-ball questioning – might be imposed on the BBC?

Should governors set news values?

Whittle explained that this particular meeting was about “trying to reassure themselves” that what the BBC had done in terms of editorial process with Gilligan’s report was “consistent with our stated editorial values”. The governors’ concern was “whether from time to time the tone gets out of kilter and ultimately whether what gets reported stands the test of scrutiny”, said Whittle. Pathé News, he added, is not “a gold standard or anything that should be aspired to”.

But Purvis pointed out that not only do the minutes of the governors’ July meeting say that “increasingly, journalists are being employed as news creators rather than reporters,” but that the BBC’s acting director-general, Mark Byford, is on record as saying that “exclusive here, exclusive there, exclusive everywhere is not appropriate for the BBC.” Are there at least some governors who think that the business of breaking news is not for the BBC?

John Ware, the veteran Panorama reporter, said that he detected no “weakening of the spirit either in BBC management or editors and categorically not among ordinary working journalists”. When pressed by Purvis about reports of self-censoring happening at the BBC post-Hutton, Whittle said that his understanding was that Byford was concerned about over-playing stories as exclusives when they were routine.

Ware said there is a big distinction between news programmes and current affairs programmes, the latter having the “luxury of time” to think and to consult lawyers about stories long before they are broadcast.

“I do think this question of the BBC weakening its investigative journalism is more to do with news than with current affairs,” he added. He also threw the first stone at Gilligan, saying that the Today reporter had a “wonderful story in the making there, if it had been thought through carefully, painstakingly” (see box on page 26).

However, Martin Fewell, deputy editor of Channel 4 News, said that all investigations are essentially about finding things out and backing them up. At C4 the same criteria apply to both news and current affairs. “I personally see it as a great advantage to understand all the disciplines of investigative reporting and apply them to daily news journalism as well,” he argued.

Institutional paranoia

From the audience Michael Crick, the Newsnight reporter and Jeffrey Archer biographer, claimed there was “almost a paralysis” in decision making at the BBC evident since Gilligan’s report was aired last May.

What you saw was “delay, meetings, consult the lawyers, get more evidence,” said Crick. “Inevitably things will become so slow that the BBC will be scooped by someone else or in the day to day, stories become too expensive because of time and money and reporters like myself will get diverted into other stuff… I think the BBC will be weakened as a result of this process for a while and inevitably that weakens the whole of broadcasting because broadcasting needs a strong BBC to maintain standards.”

Ware disagreed but added that he had seen a change in the BBC “creeping in even at the end of John Birt’s era and Greg Dyke certainly did nothing to discourage it” of “standards slipping a bit in a number of programmes in the quest for ratings. There was bound to be an accident sooner or later.”

Nick Robinson, political editor ITV News, added that part of the problem with broadcast news journalism comes from having a raft of highly competitive 24-hour news channels. In this environment, there is a tendency to broadcast “second-hand, reheated slurs” – especially when the right-wing press has taken it upon itself to be the most vocal opposition to government.

“It’s simply not good enough to say ‘reports suggest’. We have a duty to figure out if things are true,” said Robinson. These trends provided the context for Gilligan’s story; Hutton had “triggered a backlash at the BBC”. But he warned that there is “danger” in a climate where editors and journalists start to “anticipate what bosses want in terms of avoiding rows”.

Hutton accused the BBC of “defective” management in handing the Government’s complaint about Gilligan’s report. Purvis asked Whittle why the BBC didn’t back down once the Government had “zeroed in” on the “probably knew it was wrong” statement in Gilligan’s report. Whittle said that with the benefit of hindsight that would have been the right thing to do.

But did Gilligan really get it wrong, asked Bernard Clark, the independent producer and veteran journalist. “I was in Northern Ireland for three years and I wasn’t just reporting, I was interpreting.”

WMD: words of mass deception

Ware responded by maintaining that Gilligan’s reports contained two major flaws: the claim that the Government “probably knew” the 45-minute claim (to deploy weapons of mass destruction from Iraq) was wrong and the implication that Tony Blair had “overridden” the Joint Intelligence Committee’s views in order to sex-up the Iraq dossier. “Words are the precision tools of our trade and I think Mr Gilligan deployed them very sloppily,” he said.

Whittle added that the voice that still hadn’t been heard was that of Today editor Kevin Marsh. “Only he and Gilligan know exactly what took place,” said Whittle.

David Cox, the veteran current affairs producer and a member of the Elstein committee, said that the BBC is the “only organisation that can afford investigative journalism and yet it is easier to say anything political at any other place than the BBC” because BBC funding is determined by government. To “take some of the heat” off the BBC, the Elstein committee supports offering public money to other broadcasters through a separate and politically independent body which would bring back “pluralism in investigative journalism”.

But ITV’s Robinson demurred. The BBC has a “unique strength” which, if undermined, would “make it easier for commercial broadcasters to say, ‘They are not doing it, so why should we?’”

Ware added: “If you are taking on a very serious issue in relation to the Government or a political issue and very heavy shelling starts from politicians and lawyers, you need a strong and experienced army behind you.

“You are not going to get that in some broken-up companies. Investigative journalism will die. It will wither. It will just disappear.”

Gilligan committed a cardinal sin of journalism when he “shopped his source” to a parliamentary committee, Purvis said. This was “unprecedented” and yet the BBC chose not to discipline him in any way. “It’s an arguable decision,” conceded Whittle – but the BBC decided to wait until Hutton reported before taking any action.

Gilligan then resigned so it became irrelevant. Whittle added that “no one would seek to defend Gilligan’s decision” to reveal his source, but it can perhaps be explained in terms of the pressure he was under.

“I think the big threat is the future shape of broadcasting,” said Ware as proceedings drew to a close. “People who have talked to the PM say he is not a vengeful man and that whatever may have happened with Hutton, he has public service broadcasting in his bloodstream and he wants it to continue.”

Fewell regretted that the truth about the claims made in the Iraq dossier was never properly unearthed by journalists. “This should be a spur to more effective and better investigative journalism, not less of it.”

Gilligan’s critics

John Ware, Panorama: “It was a very important story to get out but it was critically important to get to the bottom of it. It was treated with this kind of scrutiny at the end of the process [and] not when it needed it, at the beginning.”

“For my money the inherent flaw in Gilligan’s broadcast was this: Gilligan was suggesting that Downing Street had overridden the Joint Intelligence Committee. That has not happened as far as I know for 60 years… For Gilligan’s story to be true, the most extraordinary precedent would have had to have been created. It would have required the PM or someone close to him to dictate to the JIC. It’s a great story. It’s not true.”

Nick Robinson, ITV News: “When the Gilligan story broke I was on the prime minister’s plane to Basra and when I landed I picked up the phone to London… I was told what Gilligan had said and I said, ‘I’m not following that story.’ They asked ‘Why?’ and I said ‘because it’s Gilligan’.”

Peter Taylor, investigative journalist: “One of the things we all have to learn how to do is to kill the story when it doesn’t stand up… I think that’s part of the Andrew Gilligan problem. If you are going to make news, break stories and do investigations in news and in current affairs you need the time and the resources, and unless news is prepared to devote the time and the resources, it runs the risk of having Oryxs.”

[The RTS event, “What future for TV investigative journalism after Hutton?” was held in London on 26 February.]


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