Belfast Telegraph

Reckless and rudderless: why the Beeb is in crisis

A failure to abide by the fundamentals of responsible journalism lies at the heart of the furore currently engulfing the BBC, says Don Anderson

About eight years ago I interviewed for this newspaper a man call Mark Byford, who was visiting Belfast. I doubt if many will remember the name.

He was at the time the BBC's acting Director General and more importantly, in the present context, Head of BBC Journalism. When he was made redundant in 2010, nobody was appointed his successor as overall head of BBC journalism. The post lapsed.

Eight years ago, the BBC was licking its wounds after another journalistic mess, which was why the BBC was being headed by an acting Director General.

The Director General, Greg Dyke, had been fired; the BBC chairman had gone as well. This was the scorched earth after a bruising battle over matters relating to reportage of the Iraq war. On the Government side was Alastair Campbell, Image-Maker General to Prime Minister Tony Blair. Campbell's broadsides led to a very critical report by Lord Hutton, a former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland. Shattering high profile BBC resignations followed.

In short, the BBC has been in this kind of trouble before and if anything it was worse back then. The Hutton Report shook the BBC to the core of its being, with questions being asked as to whether it was fit for purpose. But the circumstances were different in that a government then felt under political attack and retaliated. That is not the case today.

Today we are discussing rotten journalism and why it had any place in the BBC. I began my career in print journalism. When I moved to the BBC it was under a splendid editor called Cecil Taylor, who had begun his career in the Larne local paper.

Everybody round me had been in print journalism, had tramped streets, knocked doors, talked to people and above all, listened. Then they checked facts again and again because editors like Cecil Taylor and Martin Wallace (ex-Belfast Telegraph) demanded it. They, no less than today's local editors, had learnt from men like Jack Sayers, one of the most dynamic of this paper's editors in the last century. Experience on the ground and of the ground does matter more than many Oxbridge BBC editors and producers may understand.

Sayers would have been bewildered by a report wrongly implicating a senior Conservative politician in a paedophile ring. It was thoroughly unprofessional journalism, something a raw recruit might have produced. And then spiked by good well-trained, well experienced editors.

At the risk of appearing to blow our own trumpets, I don't think the Newsnight report would have reached air if it had passed the desks of broadcasting or print editors in Northern Ireland, a point made to me by former BBCNI correspondent Mike McKimm, who says that some of the best tip-offs given to him never made air.

"It wasn't a case of having to refer things up the line of command," said McKimm.

"It is second nature to any investigative journalist. Check and check and check and trust no one.

"I suspect that if this story had been handled by any of the BBC's regions, including BBC Northern Ireland, it wouldn't have seen the light of day.

"There were so many bits of it screaming 'Check me out'. I am utterly baffled by the outcome."

And when UTV transmitted its stunning programme Suffer Little Children revealing paedophilia within parts of the Catholic Church, it was checked minutely right to the top of the company before being broadcast. That's the professionalism I speak of.

I don't say bring back Mark Byford. But in the inevitable BBC re-structuring, do bring back his Head of Journalism post.

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