21 FEBRUARY 1987, Page 24


The media: Paul Johnson

reflects on the moral

atmosphere at the BBC `THE latest scandal to hit Wall Street', I heard a BBC news announcer say recently. That, you may think, is a rather tenden- tious way of headlining the news, not uncharacteristic of the declining standards at the Corporation. But what about the news the Corporation does not report? How about 'The latest scandal to hit the BBC'? There are now so many it is becoming difficult to keep track of them. There are, of course, important differ- ences between Wall Street and City scan- dals, and those at the BBC. But perhaps the most significant one, from the point of view of the public interest, is that in the financial world an operator caught break- ing the rules is punished — enforced resignation or sacking being the least he has to fear. In a BBC scandal, by contrast, no one is penalised at all. The Corporation simply closes ranks and rides out the storm, secure in its poll-tax income (now index-linked). There are, it is true, one or two minor exceptions to this no- punishment procedure. Thus, the BBC Radio London producer who wrote an intemperate defence of his one-sided prog- ramme (I described the incident in the Spectator), actually received a letter of rebuke from the then director-general not, I hasten to add, for broadcasting a biased programme but for admitting the fact publicly. This was, by the BBC's current standards, a trivial case. In the more important ones, involving weightier people, no action is taken. The BBC, being to a great extent a self-regulating institution, protected from many legal processes by its Royal Charter, and from the market by its monopoly tax-income, does have some rules of its own. But they are often ignored and increasingly rarely enforced. Thus, in the BBC' Real Lives-IRA scandal, the BBC's rules and guidelines for programmes deal- ing with terrorism and Northern Ireland were repeatedly and flagrantly broken, at various levels in the hierarchy. Indeed, if the rules had been observed, there would have been no trouble in the first place. These multiple breaches were listed in a statement by the chairman of the BBC governors, published in the Times. As the issue was an extremely serious one, which brought the BBC into conflict with the Government, the least the public had the right to expect was a full internal inquiry, followed by appropriate disciplinary ac- tion. In fact, nothing happend at all. To the best of my knowledge no one was ever punished in any way. Naturally, if officials are not penalised for breaking rules, further breaches will occur. That is exactly what has happened. Crossfire, a five-part 'thriller', presenting IRA terrorists in a sympathetic light, and due to be transmitted in March, also broke BBC rules about the presentation of ter- rorism. Indeed, the BBC's Northern Ire- land controller does not seem to have been consulted at all. The series has now been withdrawn for 'further work'. Evidently somebody tried to pull a fast one. Are any of the rule-breakers going to be punished this time? True, the BBC does not have a director-general at present. But there is nothing to stop the board of governors ordering an urgent inquiry into this case. They, after all, have all the legal responsi- bility. If rules are broken with impunity, they are ultimately to blame. As the BBC scandals multiply, the evi- dence grows that impropriety exists not just at the production level but higher up. The Maggie's Militant Tendency libel was a particularly disturbing example of BBC misbehavior. If all the details are ever published they will, I think, shock even the BBC's most earnest apologists. Yet re- peated decisions to defend the indefensible were taken at senior level right up to the final debacle. The financial loss to the Corporation was enormous. The damage to the BBC's reputation, especially in par- liament, was still more serious. Why has no inquiry been held? Why has no one been punished? Is it because some of the respon- sibility goes too far up the hierarchy? Even more destructive of the BBC's image for integrity is the soberly factual and fully-documented account provided by Ian Curteis in the Sunday Telegraph of the suppression of his Falklands play. This makes it perfectly clear that the play was censored not for electoral reasons (the official BBC explanation), or because of its lack of quality (the unofficial BBC whispering campaign) but because Curteis refused to give the script a political slant which would have been both anti- Government and unhistorical. In particu- lar, he would not cut scenes showing the Prime Minister weeping at the loss of the Sheffield or writing personal letters to the families of servicemen who were killed; most of all, he refused to insert the suggestion, which he knew to be untrue, that electoral considerations had governed the Cabinet's handling of the crisis. In short he would not be a party to politically-motivated falsification of the historical record, like The Monocled Mutineer.

Curteis's account exposes the shoddy way the BBC is run nowadays: it mendac- ity, hyprocrisy and duplicity, as well as its obvious political bias. Some of the most senior officials at the BBC were involved in this sorry tale, and if they are in a position to challenge Curteis's allegations they have an obvious legal remedy. One of the BBC's fictions — that the Corporation could not transmit such a progrmme in a likely election year — has already been exposed by its own decision to show in June a tendentious version of the Profumo affair calculated to damage the Conservative Party. But the BBC takes falsehood in its stride these days. Has not Bill Cotton, Managing Director of BBC television, publicly announced its commitment not, indeed, to historical accuracy — that is often politically inconvenient — but to what he is pleased to term 'the greater truth'. This weasel-expression perfectly sums up the moral atmosphere which now envelops 'the world's finest broadcasting service'. That is one reason why the next director-general should come from out- side.