In the entrance to the BBC’s London headquarters, Broadcasting House, there’s an interesting Latin inscription that refers to broadcasting in the original biblical sense of scattering seed: “And they pray that good seed sown may bring forth good harvest, and that all things foul or hostile to peace may be banished thence, and that the people inclining their ear to whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, may tread the path of virtue and wisdom.”

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In the years since those words were inscribed, “things foul or hostile” have proved frustratingly hard to erase. And the BBC has been rocked by a number of scandals erupting from within its own portals. As The Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins observed, the BBC “is where the British gather to fight their most vicious culture wars… it has crisis in its bones”. But some fights prove more damaging than others. And over the past two decades, a 24-hours-a-day media world has made it easier than ever for its opponents to amplify any mistakes – large and small. Nor has an increasingly nervy BBC always defended itself well against their attacks.

The first major crisis of the new century to hit the BBC concerned the invasion of Iraq by British and American forces, and precipitated a bitter falling out with Tony Blair’s government. Hostilities opened on the morning of 29 May 2003 with a soon-to-be-infamous broadcast on Radio 4. Just after 6am, the Today programme’s defence correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, took to the microphone to talk about the latest twist in the saga of Iraq’s elusive “weapons of mass destruction” – weapons the government had suggested could be launched against British interests within 45 minutes, and which had therefore become a major justification for military intervention. Gilligan now suggested not just that the 45-minute figure mentioned in an intelligence dossier was wrong but that the government had known it was wrong.

Worse, he claimed that Downing Street had ordered the same document to be “sexed up, to be made more exciting”. In other words, a BBC correspondent was making the incendiary claim that the prime minister had deliberately misled the nation – and he made the claim on a breakfast programme that often set the day’s news agenda for the national media.

The response from Downing Street’s press operation, led by Alastair Campbell, was speedy and unrelenting. As well as denying the story outright, Campbell accused Today of basing its report on a single anonymous and uncorroborated source. With the BBC’s director general, Greg Dyke, resolutely standing by Gilligan, what began as a dispute over a reporter’s choice of words in a single interview rapidly blew up into a debilitating conflict over journalistic standards.

Alastair Campbell arrives at the Hutton inquiry into Kelly’s death
Alastair Campbell arrives at the Hutton inquiry into Kelly’s death, September 2003. Its findings were highly critical of the BBC. (Image by Alamy)

Several weeks later, Gilligan’s source was revealed: David Kelly, the former UN weapons inspector. Soon after, Kelly went missing from his Oxfordshire home. And on Friday 18 July his body was found slumped against a tree: he had taken his own life. The subsequent inquiry into the circumstances surrounding his death, led by Brian Hutton, the former Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, published its findings the following January. They contained devastating criticism of the Today programme’s editorial processes: Gilligan’s central allegations had been “unfounded” and the editorial system that allowed him to make his claims had been “defective”. Within 24 hours, the BBC’s chairman, Gavyn Davies, and the director general had both resigned, while a caretaker chairman, Richard Ryder, had apologised “unreservedly” for the BBC’s failures.

There were plenty inside the BBC, especially in its news departments, who felt that the government and corporation had each overreacted. A 2004 government review suggested the intelligence on which the government relied had indeed been “seriously flawed” – a finding the Chilcot Inquiry would later reinforce. In the immediate aftermath of the row, Kevin Marsh, Today’s editor, pointed out that “very senior sources” had also confirmed many of the details in Gilligan’s report. The BBC’s man had been substantially right. He had also been prepared properly by his editorial team: it was merely his loose phrasing in the heat of a live conversation which had caused the problem.

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David Kelly, the source of the BBC’s Iraq report
David Kelly, the source of the BBC’s Iraq report, leaves parliament after giving evidence, 15 July 2003. He was found dead days late. (Image by Alamy)

Many fellow journalists feared a long-term chilling effect on the corporation’s news instincts. Yet the BBC’s former business editor, Robert Peston, later claimed he for one never “felt haunted by Hutton”. Roger Mosey, who ran television news at the time, also described a subtle recalibration taking hold after Hutton: a BBC that was simply reasserting its commitment to higher standards of proof.

From the historian’s point of view, what’s perhaps most striking about this whole episode is what it reveals about the huge influence of newspaper values on BBC journalism during this period. There was a constant turnover of staff between Fleet Street and the corporation, and in the BBC’s newsrooms a great deal of time and attention was devoted to perusing the press, especially the Mail and Telegraph. The result, according to the Financial Times journalist John Lloyd, had been not just a newspaper culture ravenous for conflict but also a BBC that had come to believe that “this was the way true journalists should behave”. If so, the recalibration Mosey described was probably overdue.

Institutional failings

The 2012 row over Jimmy Savile also touched on journalistic standards. But it sent shockwaves well beyond the BBC’s newsrooms. When Savile’s death was announced in October 2011, reporters on Newsnight were preparing an expose of his tawdry history of sexual abuse. Their investigation was then halted, leaving a team from ITV to broadcast the allegations a few months later. Had the corporation’s senior executives intervened because a tribute show was also being planned for the Christmas schedules?

Had they feared what would emerge about historical allegations of abuse committed by Savile at the BBC? Or was it both? Given the whiff of a cover-up and swirling rumours of sex offenders on the payroll, the BBC felt it had little option but to expose itself to some very public investigations.

Jimmy Savile (second from left) on the set of Top of the Pops
Jimmy Savile (second from left) on the set of Top of the Pops, 1973. The presenter met some of his victims during the recording of the music show. (Photo by Ron Howard/Redferns via Getty Images)

The first of these, conducted by the former ITN journalist Nick Pollard, would eventually clear Newsnight and senior managers of improper attempts to suppress the truth. The real issue, Pollard concluded, had been an editorial decision that set the bar of proof too high by insisting that the testimony of those women who were Savile’s victims was not in itself sufficient for the BBC to proceed.

By now, the crisis had escalated horribly. In what appeared to be an attempt to prove its commitment to robust investigative journalism, Newsnight alleged that a senior Conservative had been involved in child abuse. He wasn’t named, but speculation on social media soon identified him as the former Tory party treasurer Lord McAlpine. Unfortunately, it was a case of mistaken identity: McAlpine was innocent. Within days, the director general, George Entwistle – just weeks into the job – had been forced to resign. Meanwhile, the chairman, Chris Patten, talked publicly about “a tsunami of filth” engulfing the corporation.

A second investigation saw High Court judge Dame Janet Smith spend nearly four years interviewing more than 380 witnesses. Her findings, published in 2016, revealed that a catalogue of sexual assaults had indeed taken place. She identified more than 70 allegations of inappropriate conduct or sexual assault, many of them associated with TV shows Top of the Pops and Jim’ll Fix It.

There had been no institutional cover-up, she concluded, but those who had witnessed Savile’s behaviour had repeatedly failed to pass on complaints. Staff had been more concerned with damage to the BBC’s reputation than victims’ welfare.

Moral danger

The account of witness “C16” was all too typical. She was just 16 years old in 1969, and had been in the Top of the Pops studio dancing next to Savile when he attacked her. When she complained to a member of the studio floor staff, she was told she must have been mistaken and escorted off the premises. On other occasions complainants were told to keep their “mouth shut” or that Savile had just been “mucking about”.

The DJ would often meet his victims at the recording of a show and then entice them away from BBC premises in order for the abuse to take place elsewhere. But he would also “gratify himself sexually” at Television Centre, Radio 1’s offices at Egton House, and other regional centres. These, Smith said, had become places where young people were “at risk of moral danger”.

Taking a legalistic approach, Smith decided the BBC as a corporate entity could only have been guilty of a cover-up if heads of department or those above had been aware of specific allegations and done nothing. This, she said, was not the case. There had been plenty of gossip, and several junior staff had clearly been aware of Savile’s actions. But none of the complaints – even those from the BBC’s own staff – were fully documented or passed up the chain of command. Such lack of concern was not uncommon at the time, but a destructive “macho culture”, especially among the BBC’s technical staff and TV light entertainment, had been revealed. In the following years there would have to be wholesale reform behind the scenes: better child protection and whistleblowing guidelines, staff awareness training, and, above all, a healthier gender balance on the payroll.

The BBC’s two biggest recent scandals both seem so shocking, in part, because they concerned an organisation that its first director general, John Reith, had once imagined would set a new gold standard in corporate management. But while the rows surrounding both Gilligan and Savile undoubtedly raised profoundly serious issues – as did the scandal surrounding Martin Bashir’s 1995 interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, and ongoing accusations of age discrimination at the corporation – they were also examples of an institution facing intense scrutiny and yet still committed to unusual levels of public accountability.

The BBC’s initial response to embarrassing revelations has often been overly defensive. But principles of transparency have usually kicked in – sometimes to the point of painful self-excoriation. Perhaps more damaging to the corporation’s image is the stream of less spectacular – and sometimes vexatious – disputes over editorial balance or lapses in taste.

In a creative organisation responsible for thousands of hours of output every week, mistakes are inevitable, and sometimes forgiveable. The BBC’s difficulty is that it is these, as much as the more serious disputes, which continue to provide a rich vein of ammunition for any politician or commercial rival intent on weakening its public standing for their own benefit.

David Hendy is emeritus professor at the University of Sussex. His latest book is The BBC: A People’s History (Profile, 2022)

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This article was first published in the November 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

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