Fear and Loathing at the BBC: If the Nation's Biggest Broadcaster Got Most of the Blame for the Kelly Affair, It Was an Accident Waiting to Happen. David Cox Exposes the Roots of a Catastrophe

By Cox, David | New Statesman (1996), February 2, 2004 | Go to article overview

Fear and Loathing at the BBC: If the Nation's Biggest Broadcaster Got Most of the Blame for the Kelly Affair, It Was an Accident Waiting to Happen. David Cox Exposes the Roots of a Catastrophe


Cox, David, New Statesman (1996)


The BBC is the world's biggest news broadcaster, employing more than 2,000 journalists at 57 bases. In times of crisis, the nation still turns automatically to its output. During the first two weeks of the Iraq war, 93 per cent of the population watched beard or clicked on to BBC news. The conventional wisdom is that the David Kelly affair is something this otherwise unassailable news giant somehow "rapped over", as Gavyn Davies, the now departed chairman of the corporation's governors, put it in his evidence to Lord Hutton. But it is nor so.

With a blinding flash, the Hutton inquiry presented us with an unexpected snapshot of what life is really, like not just in Downing Street and Whitehall, but also in Broadcasting House and Television Centre. The picture of the government that emerged was none too pretty, but none too surprising either. Nowadays, few of us expect truth, honour or competence from our politicians. From the BBC, we have expected all those things and a great deal more. Yet Hutton's flashgun revealed that its mighty news empire is caught in the grip of a crippling malaise, which made the Kelly catastrophe not a bit of bad luck, but an accident waiting to happen.

You have only to drop into a BBC hacks' canteen to realise that something is wrong. Journalists who should be busily plotting their next scoop will probably be moaning instead. A debilitating fog of resentment has engulfed BBC News. So what are the complaints? Almost everything you can imagine.

Older journalists grumble that nowadays you have to be young; but many of their younger colleagues are eager to get out. Those who are either white or male (the vast majority) feel their paths are blocked, but those who are female or black usually feel patronised. Those who speak "BBC English" think this will be held against them, but those from the other side of the tracks believe they will never be trusted. One complaint seems to unite them all. The organisation for which they work does not seem to share their passion for reporting the news. It has too many other more important priorities.

The director general, Greg Dyke, famously worries that the BBC's staff are "hideously white". As editor in chief, how much does he worry about the quality of its news? It seems not to have been much of an issue. When Dyke got round to thinking about it, his main concern seems to have been that the corporation might have too many correspondents overseas. Why maintain bureaux in 44 countries when, after all, the public aren't interested in foreign news, are they? Lord Hutton may have wondered what Dyke was doing in the weeks before he found time to listen to Andrew Gilligan's fateful Today programme broadcast. His journalists, however, would have understood.

They know all too well that the top brass are very busy bees. They have politicians to schmooze, lobbyists to appease, management consciousness-raising away-breaks to organise, gender correctness issues to address and ratings to pore over. Which is not to say they do not make demands on their journalists. What they want from them is bigger audiences with better "demographics". In the grim words of the BBC's latest annual report: "Making news and current affairs more relevant to younger audiences is a continuing priority."

In pursuit of this goal, the admired BBC2 series Correspondent has just been scrapped. The channel controller, Jane Root, feared that its distinguished, middle-aged reporters could alienate the young. The replacement series, This World, aims to avoid this error. The Sunday Times described its opener, on the Hell's Angels, as "a slovenly and unremarkable cuttings job". Last year, a review of political output imposed on an unwilling news division swept away respected if sober programmes such as On the Record and Despatch Box. In their places came kiddy-friend early Saturday morning politics shows that embarrassed even some of those who worked on them. …

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