The BBC: news at sixes and sevens

Fictional journalists show more principle than their BBC counterparts, says Sally Feldman

January 15, 2015

This year more than 28,000 students will graduate in media-related courses. And where do most of them want to work? According to the professional network LinkedIn, the second most sought-after employer in the country, sandwiched between Google and Unilever, is the BBC.

But the few who do make it inside the citadel of their dreams are liable to be profoundly disappointed. The first shock will be the working conditions. At Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, where I was editor more than 20 years ago, we used to boast that the BBC was one of the first to introduce equal pay and that it was regularly listed as one of the fairest employers. Today’s graduates, if they’re privileged enough to get work at all, will endure a succession of short-term contracts on tiny wages with no security. Meanwhile, upstairs, top managers continue to enjoy staggering salaries and obscene pay-offs.

In the past few years, for example, departing executives received between half a million and a million pounds each in severance, and the BBC spent £28 million on silencing clauses in staff contracts.

If the BBC chose to face up to its critics, champion the values on which it was founded, dare more and fear less, wouldn’t it be more likely to gain the respect of licence-payers and inspire more pride in its workforce?

Yet bright young talents continue to accept the laughable pay and miserable conditions because they believe in the BBC and its values; they’re still keen to work for an organisation steeped in the high-minded principles set down by Lord Reith, in a commitment to objective, fair reporting. But their next disappointment will be the gradual realisation that journalistic standards are slipping.

In the past few years, there was the cowardly withdrawal of the Newsnight investigation of the Jimmy Savile affair; the apology for fake footage used in a Panorama exposé of child labour; a false photograph of a massacre in Iraq. More recently, BBC news sent a crew to stake out Cliff Richard’s house before he was even charged with any offence. And the once-impeccable News at Ten is now dominated by gruesome coverage of murders and “human interest” scandals.

It is perhaps an uncomfortable paradox that those who want dramatic reminders of cherished broadcasting standards are more likely to find them on alternative commercial networks. Sky Television may be the scourge of liberal intellectuals, but there is no better exposition of the ethical dilemmas facing journalists than Sky Atlantic’s HBO drama The Newsroom. It’s here that Will McAvoy, the principled news anchor played by Jeff Daniels, is prepared to go to prison rather than reveal a source; here that a reporter is taunted by her boyfriend for taking a job at a gossipy website, while a producer has to decide whether to broadcast an overheard conversation. In this newsroom, anyone tampering with recordings is dismissed; and it’s here that the troubled executive editor, Charlie Skinner, forced to agree to shameful dumbing-down, suffers a heart attack and dies.

If you want your students to see just how dangerous truth-telling can be, there’s also the US version of House of Cards, whose third season is about to begin on Netflix. So far, the ambitious young reporter Zoe Barnes has been dispatched under a subway train for knowing too much; Lucas Goodwin, a senior political editor, has faced multiple charges for pursuing that same major corruption story; and photographer Adam Galloway has had to lie on camera and jeopardise his reputation to prevent the trumped-up arrest of a human rights activist.

These are stories about real power, real influence and the risks that real journalists have to face in pursuit of them.

And compared with these, the latest BBC climbdown seems ever more pathetic. Only last week, at the behest of the Royal Family’s solicitors, Steve Hewlett’s documentary Reinventing the Royals was pulled from the BBC Two schedule. The programme was to show how Clarence House once employed Mark Bolland – a spin doctor known by the young princes as “Blackadder” – to try to improve Prince Charles’ image. And it was withdrawn, apparently, because of a clash over film rights.

This may indeed be the reason, but, as seasoned commentator Peter Preston pointed out in last week’s Observer, one big question won’t disappear. “Has the BBC, even once, done something that ruffles the House of Windsor in the 20 years since Martin Bashir interviewed Diana?” he demanded. “No, it’s all been sweetness and subservient since – well – Nicholas Witchell had a forelock to tug.”

There are understandable reasons for all the forelock-tugging these days. Not only must the BBC withstand regular assaults by the Murdoch press and appease a hostile government ahead of the licence fee negotiations, but it has also had to weather the fallout from the Jimmy Savile debacle and related revelations.

As a result, it tends to play safe, to avoid conflict and not to upset the listeners – especially royal ones. But if it chose to face up to its critics, champion the unflinching values on which it was founded, dare more and fear less, wouldn’t it be more likely to gain the respect of licence-payers and inspire more pride in its workforce?

Instead of fighting back, it seems that staff have to spend so much time avoiding controversy that many programmes are made in an atmosphere of low-level paranoia, with nervous producers exercising the worst sort of censorship: self-censorship, the kind that suffocates brave ideas or daring experiments before they’re even given a chance to be aired.

My own policy used to be to encourage the producers to push against the limits, while it was my job to decide when to hold back. I recall with affection having to take a piece to the controller, Michael Green, for approval. It contained the words “fucking nigger” – spoken by a woman describing the abuse hurled at her mixed-race baby.

Green listened gravely before pronouncing that it was fine. “And by the way,” he added. “I enjoyed yesterday’s programme. But I’m still searching for the male clitoris.”

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