Five reasons why the Tories dropped their plan to privatise Channel 4

Officially, the Channel 4 Corporation is an ALB (arm’s length body), Whitehall jargon for owned by the public but not run by the government, one of a shrinking list of businesses on HMG’s books that vary from the Ordnance Survey and The Royal Mint to the banks rescued during the financial crash, plus the company formally known as the Atomic Weapons Establishment. C4 is the only business on that list that does any kind of journalism; the BBC’s Royal Charter puts it in a different category.

So maybe it is not surprising that from time to time the Conservative government of the day picks out C4 from these strange bedfellows and asks if it should sell off this publicly owned, commercially funded broadcaster with annual revenues of around one billion pounds. The latest occasion was the fourth time (that’s by my count, others argue it is the sixth or seventh). So how come every time the Tories ask themselves the same question, they come up with the same answer – don’t sell?

The first prime minister to ask was, ironically, the one who had launched the channel in 1982 as publicly owned but commercially funded. As the BJR revealed in 2021 (Channel 4: the 30 years’ war, Volume 32, Issue 3), Margaret Thatcher thought she had a better idea by 1988: create an even bigger “third force” against the BBC and ITV by merging a privatised Channel 4 with a soon-to-be-created Channel Five. Her plan was floated in a white paper but lacked support inside the Tory party, let alone outside it.

Eight years later, in 1996, John Major was tempted to sell to offset a shortfall from other privatisations. His cabinet voted to explore the idea but opposition within the Conservative Party was symbolised by a “Dear John” letter from the then C4 chairman and Tory supporter Sir Michael Bishop. “For Channel 4, with new shareholders seeking to maximise profits, money for dividends would have to be taken directly from the screen at viewers’ exp, by diverting programme expenditure.” That argument carried the day.

Under New Labour, C4 was safe, and during the coalition years Liberal Democrat ministers acted as a brake on their Tory colleagues. But when in 2015 the Tories won an overall majority, David Cameron appointed as his secretary for culture, media and sport (DCMS) the man who had been Margaret Thatcher’s political secretary during that 1988 debate about C4’s future. For John Whittingdale, this was his chance to complete his former leader’s unfinished business. A civil servant was spotted going into 10 Downing Street with a document revealing that work should be done on “extracting greater public value from the Channel 4 Corporation, focusing on the privatisation option in particular”. Putting aside any mild embarrassment that the previous month Whittingdale had said “the ownership of Channel 4 is not currently under debate”, he seemed to be on course for success.

However, when Cameron lost the Brexit referendum in 2016, Theresa May took over as PM and sacked Whittingdale. An ambitious junior minister called Matt Hancock picked up the C4 brief and used the threat of privatisation to try to extract some “greater public value”. In a compromise worked out with Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon, the largest C4 office would remain in Horseferry Road, Westminster, but a new site outside London would became the “national HQ” of the channel. Leeds was chosen, and other departments were moved from London to regional centres. This seemed like a deal that could put the privatisation issue to bed for a decade or so.

But as prime ministers continued to come and go, by 2020 Whittingdale was back in a more junior role at DCMS, summoned from the back benches by Boris Johnson, who was developing a thing about the folks in Horseferry Road. Various people in and around the channel weren’t above winding him up either: replacing Johnson with a block of ice when he wouldn’t take part in a party leaders’ debate on climate change, accusing him of sending his father as a replacement when Johnson Senior was actually a guest of the channel, misquoting the prime minister as saying “people of colour” instead of “people of talent”, and finally calling him a liar. Downing Street was keeping the score as it planned its revenge.

“Here we go again,” said media analysts Enders as Whittingdale was given the go-ahead to restart the C4 debate. Trying to leave nothing to chance this time, he began with “the government’s preferred option”, which was to “facilitate a change of ownership of Channel 4”. But the persistent privatiser fell at the final fence again when Johnson fired him in a DCMS ministerial slaughter after the department failed to deliver the Ofcom chairmanship to Paul Dacre. Whittingdale took it badly and was later compensated with a knighthood.

Nadine Dorries was put in charge at DCMS – what could possibly go wrong? Well, her patron at No 10 got fired by his own MPs for starters. When Johnson left, and with him key advisers pushing for privatisation, the C4 parcel was passed to incoming PM Liz Truss. During the campaign for the party leadership, she had fudged her position and once in office replaced Dorries with Michelle Donelan, who promptly described herself as “somebody that listens” and decides policy “based on evidence”. The well-paid advisers to the likely broadcasting bidders feared the gig was up.

Their hopes rose a little when Rishi Sunak became PM because he had declared himself a seller. However, faced with so many other more pressing problems, Downing Street allowed Donelan at DCMS to conclude that not only was the status quo the option to take but that C4 should also be given something it had never asked for over 40 years: the right to make and sell some of its own programmes.

The campaign to privatise C4 had got closer to legislation than any previous attempt, so what caused this remarkable last-minute change of policy?

1. The political roundabout

The sale of Channel 4 has been considered over the years by no fewer than seven Conservative prime ministers and 17 cabinet ministers who held the media brief. How many were in the job long enough to understand the detail? Margaret Thatcher and John Whittingdale, for certain, that’s clear from the his and hers 1988 papers in the National Archives. But how about Nadine Dorries, who told a Commons committee that Channel 4’s future should be “brought into question, particularly when it is in receipt of taxpayers’ money”. Channel 4 receives no taxpayers’ money.

How many were in the job long enough to care? When the ministerial stars were in alignment for the zealot partnership of Boris Johnson and John Whittingdale and then the Johnson/Dorries coupling, there was strong momentum towards a sale, and a hasty consultation was organised to make the parliamentary timetable as fast as possible. When Whittingdale fell, ironically at the hands of Johnson, and then Johnson himself fell, there were few left who thought the issue was worth a lengthy and potentially difficult parliamentary process. The musical chairs paused for a moment and somebody had to make a decision. Those who supported what C4 had done for the Paralympics and other good deeds (one cabinet minister even stood up and sang Happy Birthday at a C4 party), combined with the “don’t knows” and the “don’t cares”, turned out to be in the majority. Even the lead presenter of Channel Four News being caught calling a minister a “c***” off air was forgiven.

2. The limpness of the ideological argument

The base case for privatisation was once summed up by Whittingdale: “It’s worth asking the question why we need two publicly owned broadcasters.” The simple answer is that the BBC and Channel 4 have different roles. But how could the private sector best perform C4’s duties around innovation, creative risk-taking, and championing unheard voices? A radical alternative would have been a challenge to the free market; maybe language such as “we will deregulate Channel 4 allowing private capital to create innovative new services” and, of course, at the same time maximise the revenue for the Treasury from the sale. Instead, the Government went with the public service broadcasting status quo, sweetened only by a hint of “modernisation of Channel 4’s remit and obligations”. It was a pitch to the consolidators, such as ITV, Viacom (owner of Channel Five) and Warner Brothers Discovery, to increase their scale in the UK, run their own programmes on C4’s channels and, most importantly, take C4 off the Government’s hands. But would it be worth the bother?

3. The failure of the business case

Back in 1996, Whittingdale was arguing that Channel 4’s healthy financial position – annual surplus of £128million – meant it was time for “privatisation at the first opportunity”.

By 2016, he said privatisation was necessary because despite the financial position (£26million surplus and record revenues), C4 might not be sustainable in the long term. After the pandemic, the 2021 surplus was back over £100million, backed up by net cash reserves of £272million. Surviving Covid had been the incentive for cutting costs and Channel 4 was embracing the on-demand revolution with gusto. The “unsustainable” argument was clearly unsustainable.

4.The loyalty of the indie sector

Long gone are the days when Channel 4 was the first, and for some the only, stop for independent producers pitching a project. Now everybody from the BBC and ITV to Sky and the so-called streamers (Netflix, Amazon, etc) commissions from and sometimes buys “indies”. But the sector kept faith with the channel that gave birth to it and any doubters were probably pushed into the C4 loyalist camp when the Government said successful bidders could run more of their own shows on 4.

5. The inscrutable Alex Mahon

For five years, Alexandra Rose Mahon has tried to get on with her day job as chief executive of Channel 4. But DCMS ministers and civil servants kept calling about privatisation, often just to try to work out what she thought. Alex played her cards smartly throughout. She accepted that “the government has every right to look at the ownership of Channel 4 from time to time” and embraced the “levelling up” agenda which the previous C4 regime had rejected when some non-executive directors advocated moving jobs out of London. Her non-confrontational but quietly effective campaign ensured a “sensible decision”.

First published in the British Review of Journalism March 2023

Stewart Purvis was connected with C4 over 40 years as editor of Channel Four News, ITN chief executive, a C4 consultant and a non-executive director for seven-and-a-half years, ending in May 2021. @StewartPurvis

Do Harry and Meghan have editorial control over what goes in and what stays out of ‘Harry and Meghan’?

Traditionally there are two types of royal documentary in the UK:

  • the ‘authorised’ kind, a TV company puts an idea to Buckingham Palace who like it and agree to co-operate subject to certain conditions
  • the ‘unauthorised’ kind, the Palace aren’t interested in the project, don’t try to stop it but don’t co-operate either.

Over the past 40 years I’ve made or appeared in both.

The ‘Harry and Meghan’ series on Netflix uses a different although not entirely new model. The American film-maker, Liz Garbus, working with her husband Dan Cogan, calls it a ‘collaboration’ According to the New York Times: “When pressed as to whether the couple had final approval over the series, she responded: “It was a collaboration. You can keep asking me, but that’s what I’ll say.”

Another documentary-maker Garrett Bradley had dropped out off the project because “Ms. Bradley’s vérité style did not mesh with the couple’s interests”. Instead, according to the New York Times, “Ms. Garbus said that Harry and Meghan were interested in telling their love story within the historical context of the British monarchy. Ms. Garbus wanted to expand on that and explore how their personal pasts affected their present.”

TV folk will read into this that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex have effectively had the programmes made in the way they want by professionals they’ve decided to work with about the subjects they want and with, at the very least, some measure of editorial control. 

There are huge advantages to this, they can say and include whatever they want subject only to the law of libel. They are free to give their side of the story, uncomplicated by any other side.

There are two downsides, one is that the royals lose any deniability. There can be no complaints such as ‘my answers were taken out of context’ or ‘I didn’t realise the programme-makers would use that picture’. Meghan and Harry are therefore accountable for every element of the content.

So the sequence about the British Empire in Episode 3, which personally I have no problem with but has enraged others in the UK, was clearly part of the deal with Ms Garbus and Mr Cogan.

The other downside is that omitting anything relevant from the programmes also looks like a conscious decision. For example in the episodes shown so far there is no mention of Meghan having been married and divorced before she met Harry, even in a powerful sequence about divorce.  Which serious ‘documentarian’, as some American film-makers prefer to be called, would omit that fact unless they had to. 

When the next set of episodes are released I suspect there will be more questions to Ms Garbus about whether Harry and Meghan have the last say in what goes in ‘Harry and Meghan’.

Declaration of interest; in the 1980s I made three programmes for ITV with the then Prince and Princess of Wales: an interview called ‘Talking Personally’ and a two-part documentary ‘In Private, In Public’. Extracts were shown in the archive sequences of ‘Harry and Meghan’. The Royal Family held a contactual right to editorial control of the programmes and required the removal of certain sequences shot with the Prince and Princess which I had included in the first cut. Since then I have never been involved in any documentaries where editorial control was shared with a contributor. 

On the 40th anniversary of Channel Four this is the previously untold story of what happened on the 1st anniversary and the impact on the future of Channel Four News

A week after I took over the Editor’s office at Channel Four News in 1983 I found a letter in a desk. It had been left there by Paul McKee who held the fort between the departure of  Derrik Mercer and my arrival, I suspect it was not intended for my eyes. The Chief Executive of Channel Four, Jeremy Isaacs, was informing his ITN counterpart, David Nicholas, that he reluctantly accepted me as Editor but there was a condition: if the ratings did not reach 750,000 within six months the programme would be shut down. 

This was news to me. The C4N audience had gone as low as 250,000 which in TV jargon gave it a ‘TVR’ of zero. So I had moved from Britain’s most popular news programme, News at Ten, to the ‘news with no viewers’. The trade press wondered about my sanity.

What they didn’t know was that I had taken on ‘the worst job in TV’ only to to discover there was a death sentence hanging over it. I decided never to share my secret with my new colleagues for fear it would cause a rush to the exits.

The staff would be the key to saving Channel Four News. Peter Sissons, Trevor McDonald, Elinor Goodman, Lawrence McGinty, Michael Crick, Edward Stourton, Jane Corbin and Ian Ross were among a first rate roll call of on-screen journalists. Overseeing the VTR operation was the redoubtable Sid Stiller and among the graphics team Lesley Everett was a rising star. On the news input desks John Flewin, Garron ‘Garbled Brains’ Baines and Angela Frier were under-appreciated stalwarts. We even had a future Deputy Prime Minister in Damian Green running the business desk.

But feelings about the events of the first year of C4N were still running high. Now the team were suspicious about a new editor who, as Edward Stourton writes in his forthcoming autobiography, had ‘a reputation for populism of a most un-Channel 4-ish kind”.

My own priority was answer the simple question; what was the point of Channel Four News other than it lasted an hour? To Peter Sissons “it was blindingly obvious”. We should choose the news stories of the day which raised issues and deal with them intelligently and if necessary at length. I thought we needed a format which meant the viewer should be able to watch C4N and not need to find any other news that evening. Rather than ignore what I called the ‘video river’ flowing through ITN from its crews and agency suppliers we needed to exploit it.

First Channel Four, who had grudgingly appointed ITN as their news provider in the first place, had to be weaned off an obsession with what they called ‘identifiable analysis’, a code for lengthy studio interviews with experts. My alternative was to thread analysis through the video packages of seven or more minutes using our own in-house expertise plus outside pundits. That would mean a  bigger budget and to their credit C4 agreed.

A week after handing out piechart diagrams of the new format we put it into action on the first anniversary of the channel. Jeremy Isaacs came to the newsroom in Wells Street and climbed onto a desk to speak to staff.  With his head bumping into the ceiling he delivered an upbeat  message rather different from his secret letter to David Nicholas; “Our commitment to ITN is 101 per cent and I am totally committed to both Stewart and to the production of Channel Four News”. Fortunately the team took this as good news rather the dreaded vote of confidence in the manager who is about to be fired. The six month clock began counting down to either ratings success or shutdown. 

There were many difficult moments. Edward Stourton recalls my ‘brutal determination to drag up standards’ in post-mortems after each show. Free drinks in my office afterwards didn’t always smooth over wounded feelings. The night we showed a live shot of empty aircraft steps at Gatwick for far too long brought record ratings but a complaint from Channel Four that this ‘was the wrong kind of journalism’. My explanation was that the British hostages released by Libya had got too drunk on the plane to leave. It cut little ice. 

However overall we were doing more right than wrong, scepticism among the team was giving way to enthusiasm and there was even encouraging external praise from, of all places, the Financial Times and the Los Angeles Times. Then came awards first at the Broadcasting Press Guild, then BAFTA and the Royal Television Society. Our coverage of the Miners Strike was the breakthrough moment when the wider world took notice especially when miners’ leader Arthur Scargill and Coal Board Chairman Ian McGregor made their own films and also debated live on air, the only time they ever spoke to each other in public, and maybe in private too.

One day I got a call from Channel Four to say that such was the progress that the six month deadline was off the table. The programme was safe even if we didn’t reach 750,000. In fact we did make that ratings target anyway.

40 years later the current ratings are not far off 750,000 which is an extraordinary achievement in the context of the enormous decline in linear TV viewing. So Channel Four News now has a greater share of the TV news viewing cake than it did back in those early days. 

The best single decision I made was to build the programme around Peter Sissons. Subsequently Richard Tait’s decision to do the same with Jon Snow ensured extraordinary continuity over nearly four decades. During those years Channel Four teams have upheld and strengthened the reputation for intelligent, challenging and news-making journalism. They continue to win awards around the world.

In Peter’ Sissons own words in his 2011 biography: “Having worked on every major terrestrial TV news broadcast on the BBC,ITV and Channel Four, it is my view that Channel Four News is the one that can make other flagships look pedestrian and predictable”.

This article first appeared in the ITN 55 Club newsletter


This is the obituary I wrote for the monthly newsletter published by former ITN staff.

David Nicholas loved everything about news. He enjoyed finding it which is why during the Cold War he often listened overnight to Moscow Radio in English hoping to hear first about the demise of yet another Soviet leader or a space success. He delighted in sharing it which is why he rang some of us in the middle of night to tell us what he’d just heard. David never lost his life-long enthusiasm for discovery, he read at least five newspapers a day, his final email to me was about a NASA Voyager journey to a distant star last year. 

His curiosity about the wider world may first have been aroused while growing up in Tregaron, a market town in mid-Wales where in the 1930s there were more horses and carts than cars. His school lessons were in Welsh, the first language of his grandparents. A family move south took him to English-speaking Neath Grammar School and onwards to Aberystwyth University where his friends thought he was a ‘bit odd’ for wanting to be a journalist. During his National Service he was promoted to Sergeant Nicholas, he considered the army as a career. That military background would prove useful to him during the Northern Ireland troubles and the Falklands War when he tried to find a balance between the freedom of the media and the needs of military security and public safety. 

The army’s loss of a potential young recruit was to be journalism’s gain. But only just, a job on the Wakefield Express covering rugby league was the only one on offer despite hundreds of his applications. “When I feel depressed, I thank God I don’t still have to write eight columns a week on Wakefield Trinity” he once said. 

Then came the slightly broader horizons of the Yorkshire Post, before the big move to Fleet Street working as a sub-editor on the Daily Telegraph and Observer, then to ITN as a scriptwriter in 1960.

By 1967 when ITN persuaded the IBA and ITV to allow a 13 week trial of a half-hour news programme at ten o’clock, David had earned enough trust from the editor Geoffrey Cox to be put in charge. News at Ten became a national institution. David called it ‘popular photo-journalism’ blending vivid picture power, human angles, exclusives and background analysis. 

Week after week in the late 1960s and early 1970s News at Ten was regularly in the list of the most watched TV programmes alongside Coronation Street with up to fifteen million viewers. Everybody regarded it as the UK’s flagship TV news, even the BBC. Who would have thought back in 1967 that it would still be in the ITV schedule over 50 years later? 

In 1968 when Geoffrey Cox left ITN David was the heir apparent, he was deputy editor and had created a ratings winner, but the ITV companies who owned ITN preferred Nigel Ryan. It was a shock and a setback to David but rather than leave he served nearly a decade under Nigel before finally getting the big job in 1977.

Throughout the David Nicholas decades as Editor, Chief Executive and then Chairman of ITN there were constant themes across the coverage of geo-political and social change, wars and famines, disasters and discoveries plus, of course, countless ‘And Finally’ items.

One theme was innovation. “every week we tried to do something that hadn’t been done before” he once told me. Some of his ideas came from technology, as far back as the 1966 General Election an English Electric KDF 6 computer processed the results and David became determined to turn the data into TV graphics. He succeeded, most famously with a computer first used to design knitting patterns. David was equally determined that ITN should be at the forefront of satellite news gathering, first used all the way from Wembley and then more famously with the Queen on the Great Wall of China in 1986. 

The puling power of live events was another Nicholas hallmark and they didn’t come much bigger than man landing on the moon in the middle of a July night in 1969. ITV, in the shape of Lew Grade, was persuaded by David to invest large amounts of airtime and money and David Frost was drafted in to join the familiar ITN special events team of Alastair Burnet with David Nicholas and Diana Edwards-Jones in the control room. David always wanted these big event programmes to be ‘the best party in town’ and in the run-up to the landing his party was more popular than the BBC’s version.

This was possibly the highpoint in his relations with ITV, in later years arguments about budgets, overspends, the scheduling of special events, even the issue of ITV’s ownership of ITN were to come between the two sides. David and ITV did not part on good terms but his long-term legacy is a universally respected news provider not only to ITV but to the two other commercially funded public service broadcasters, Channels Four and Five. 

One development David never got enough credit for was the televising of Parliament. The experimental ‘Their Lordships House’ on Channel Four combined with relentless lobbying over many years of David’s many political contacts finally produced success. I sat alongside him in the Commons gallery in 1988 when MPs debated the issue for the eleventh time and I remember the Conservative Government front bench looking up and smiling as he finally won the day despite Margaret Thatcher’s wishes.

On a personal level David was ferociously loyal, some might even say too loyal at times. Not so the ITN team of Michael Nicholson, Tom Phillips and Mickey Doyle trapped in Angola for four and a half months in 1978 while filming with a rebel group. David organised a rescue mission and never forgot the bravery of the pilot who landed at the rendezvous in the bush and brought out the ITN team. When the pilot later needed expensive medical treatment David insisted that ITN arranged and paid for it. 

Many ITN staff will remember an inspirational and respected leader who always made sure his people were brought home safely. It is no exaggeration to say that he created an ITN family with high editorial standards and values. David also talked of ‘the ITN diaspora’ and on his death so many people, some now in senior broadcasting roles around the world, said they were proud to be part of it. They sent condolences to David’s son James, himself a former ITN cameraman, and James’s partner Amanda who helped him care for David for so many years near their home in Cheshire. Condolences too to David’s daughter Helen and her family in America.

The oldest amongst us also remember with great affection the love of David’s life, Juliet Davies as she was when they first met as 8 years-old at a birthday party, Lady Juliet Nicholas as she proudly became, the matriarch of both families, the ITN one and the Nicholas one. Both families loved the man we now mourn, the boss who changed so many of our lives and always for the better.


This is the text of the address given by Phil Moger at the funeral of former ITN and NBC producer David Phillips on 24th September 2021 at Guildford Crematorium. Phil worked closely with David on the ITN News at 5.45. A Guardian obituary of David is at

David Phillips was simply one the finest broadcast journalists I have ever known.

Outside, working with reporters he was in a league of his own; in the office, masterminding the News at 545 he changed the face of tv journalism. I was proud to work with him and eventually take over as editor of that programme.

David was dynamic. And he was charismatic. And it was never less than exciting to work with him.

But there’s someone who has got better words than me..Gerry Seymour the novelist (who is here today). Gerry was an ITN reporter and worked with David on some of the biggest stories of last century.. He says David was irascible, brilliant, innovative, stubborn and inspirational.

It’s good that I mention Gerry because if you wrote a book about David and some of the ways he worked it would be regarded as unlikely fiction.

And if it was turned into a film, the star would have to be Tom Cruise because he is the only actor who could do the stunts that David pulled off.

David worked for ITN for 20 years.  I’ve picked out some highlights to show his raw talent.

For the first, to get the full impact of the importance go home tonight get on the internet and look up Dawson’s Field explosions.

In 1970, Palestinian terrorists hijacked three airliners and flew them to a dessert airstrip in Jordan. There after offloading the hostage passengers they blew up the planes. One of them was a BOAC VC10

A freelance cameraman working for ITN was the only person to get the picture. There were no satellites or mobile phones.  Everything was on film. This was a massive story that the world was hungry to see.

David grabbed the rolls of film and drove to Amman airport. But there were no flights out.  No planes.  Except for one…a Caravel airliner not due to fly..  David found the pilot and with an American tv man they persuaded him to fly out that night  to Nicosia. for a princely sum…£25,000 in today’s money. Two of them in an eighty seater plane.

David dashed off that plane to find all flights to London were full.  But he persuaded another pilot a BEA captain to let him fly in the jump seat .

In Britain three picture editors worked in relays on the film.  And a half hour programme went out that night – a world exclusive thanks mainly to David. 

It’s yet another flight that brought another exclusive for David…with Gerry Seymour.

In 1972 Palestinian terrorists killed the Israeli athletics team at the Munich Olympics. In a shoot out five of the terrorists were killed but three surrendered.

It was another massive story. Suddenly the Germans released the three who flew to Tripoli. In Munich David hired an executive jet and with Gerry flew after them. A worried Foreign desk  in London asked David “And how much is that gonna cost us this time” “Sorry mate, haven’t a clue” said David.

The ITN pair had no visas . No landing clearance  when they took off.

David and Gerry DID land, arranged to interview the terrorists and hid from the worlds press who were also after the interviews.  But Gerry got them, another world exclusive.  Gerry was to say later David never entertained a fear of failure that day.

David wrote two books about hijackings.  One of them I have here Leila’s Hijack War co written with another ITN journo Peter Snow. I HAVE ONE OF THE FEW REMAINING COPIES IN CIRCULATION. That’s because my wife, News at Ten director Jacqui Bromley typed the manuscript of the book and proof read it.

On lighter topics  David loved anecdotes and I am indebted to Stewart Purvis for this one.  David was at the Montreal Olympics on a radio programme where journalists were discussing their coverage.  A German woman – Dagmar – listed all the problems her team had faced.  David listed all ITN’s successes and said “Hard lines Dagmar .”  She replied “ You are a very rude man ”.  And David replied.  “Me rude, me rude, your’e the German”.

David’s biggest success was being the brains behind a new early evening news programme, The News at 545.  It started in 1977. A different broadcasting world.  No Sky, No 24 hour  BBC news, No Channel four or five.

ITN had its News at Ten but early in the evening it was a ten minute bulletin a hotchpotch of what was to come later in the evening.

The new News at 545 – fifteen minutes long – covered stories that had never been covered on television before.  A nod to the popular press –the Mail, the Mirror etc Ed Stourton once said it was regarded at the time as a bit risqué.

. And it liked sport..a horse race every day.  We were told the Queen mum was a viewer because of this

The whole idea was to make it a good evening paper. David had been a sub on the Manchester Evening News and the London Evening Standard. David’s great talent was spotting a story which people would be talking about at home or in the pub and pushing it up the bulletin to story three or four and, if  it were a quite day, even the main story..

David told me he had a picture of his scenario. A husband comes home to his wife or wife comes home to her husband and as they come through the door they say; HAVE YOU HEARD THIS. 

Example: Recently,  The rolling stones drummer Charlie Watts died.  Known to all generations big time.  A programme I saw headlined it but made it an” And finally.”

Now Afghanistan was big this day so it would not have been the lead but David – and myself – that story would have to be second or third. That was the Phillips difference.  And that’s how he changed the face of tv journalism

Other programmes soon started changing what they covered. It’s what we see today…David’s part in history. And ratings soared

Throughout  David retained his love of the unusual.  Concorde fought for years to be allowed to land in New York.  When it did he negotiated with British Airways to do the landing LIVE IN THE NEWS AT 545. We prayed that day for it to be on time. It was. A great cheer went up in he tv gallery.

And David introduced another innovation — end titles covered in film. I was his main picture man on the Concorde day.  And  on that day we had Concorde’s captain waving his hat in the air from Concorde’s window. As a goodnight.

David left ITN to get back to field producing . That saddened many of us.  He went to  the American company NBC . He was Paris Bureau chief and London deputy chief.

But David never did things by halves.  On the day he left ITN he was taking it easy: his last programme had been put together before lunch.  At three that afternoon Irish terrorists blew up he car of Airey Neave, the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary killing him. Two hours before deadline the whole programme had to be redone.

It was one of his finest.

One final point

 I have gone through dozens of documents to write  David’s obits, many supplied brilliantly by his son Guy head of ITV regional news. 

I came across one phrase written by David; “I get my energy through enthusiasm.”

I never spent a day when David wasn’t enthusiastic.  That phrase should be pined up in every newsroom  because without enthusiasm you put out a dull product.

And David knew that better than anybody .Energy through enthusiasm is the legacy he leaves us.

Channel 4:the 30 years war. An insider’s account .

My article for the British Journalism Review Volume 32 Number 3

When the Downing Street Policy Unit wrote to tell Margaret Thatcher in April 1989 that “the Home Secretary rejects a privatised C4”, she scribbled back one word: “Why?” When she lost that battle with Douglas Hurd, her policy adviser wrote ‘As Channel 4 has successfully resisted privatisation, the government should not hand it over to the broadcasting fraternity for them to run as they wish’. She endorsed this vigorously with double strokes of her pen. When Channel 4 pushed back over a new board structure she wrote tersely “Parliament decides, not Channel 4.”

Her political secretary throughout this and other broadcasting battles in the 1980s was John Whittingdale, still in his 20s, who worked with her for several hours a day. By 1996, when John Major was Prime Minister, Whittingdale was an MP, asking the DCMS Secretary if he would consider the privatisation of Channel 4 “at the first opportunity”. By 2015 Whittingdale was the DCMS Secretary himself. He tried to make privatisation happen. Now, in 2021, it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that John Whittingdale, minister of state for media and data’ is on Thatcher’s and his own unfinished business. 

The Government’s document for an “open consultation” states a preference for a “change of ownership of Channel 4”. The ideological core  is summed up by Whittingdale: “It’s worth asking the question why we need two publicly-owned broadcasters”. In effect he is saying that we can stomach one public intervention in the broadcasting industry (a BBC restrained as much as possible by its funding and its Charter) but not two. 

Over the past three decades I’ve watched this debate mostly from the upper circle but occasionally from the front row of the stalls.The masterclass years were Michael Grade’s performances on the party conference fringe when, at over-cooked English breakfasts at fading seaside hotels, the Chief Executive of Channel 4 would imply but never actually express political sympathy for each different political party. This became a must see ticket for those invited. 

The anti-privatisation cause was helped by influential figures such as Grade’s Chairman in 1996, the Tory donor Michael Bishop, who sent a  “Dear John” letter to John Major which is credited with seeing off that year’s push for privatisation. A decade later Bishop, by then Lord Glendonbrook, was saying “Britain doesn’t need two publicly- owned broadcasters” and Michael Grade, by then Lord Grade, was arguing for privatisation. 

Each time the policy debate is re-opened a new rationale is required. The rapid changes in technology have provided regular pegs.  Today it is the growth of the “streamers” such as Netflix, although Channel 4’s most recent accounts show that the current model is robust enough to cope with not only multiple digital revolutions but also a global pandemic. Channel 4 is clearly sustainable. Indeed the current chairman Charles Gurassa says the broadcaster is in “demonstrably robust financial health”, with a “strong, debt-free balance sheet and access to the capital we need for investment”. 

What is different this time is that in order to achieve their ideological goal by finding a buyer ,the Government may be prepared to sacrifice something very special about C4 that Margaret Thatcher created. Forty years ago, she saw the creation of a publicly owned publisher-broadcaster, funded by advertising but not allowed to make its own programmes, as a way of attacking what she called “the last bastion of restrictive practices”: the ITV companies and the technicians’ union ACTT.

In her own terms the launch of C4 was a great success not only as an attack on the ITV companies who eventually lost their advertising monopolies, and the ACTT which lost its closed shops but more positively because it created a whole new industrial sector of “independent production” (the “indies”) which had barely existed in television until then. 

The UK became a global leader in the production and format market and all these industrial policies were achieved without a penny of public money and while providing the UK audience with some great television. The subsequent new terms of trade that independent producers could keep more rights to the programmes they made strengthened their negotiating arm and the wealth of some owners. The yacht steered by one leading indie arouses great envy amongst broadcasters who commission programmes from him. 

After nearly 40 years of helping small companies grew and create wealth -how Thatcherite can you get?-  the latest data show it still works with many more production companies than any other commercial broadcaster . C4 had 274 across film, tv and digital in 2020 compared to ITV’s equivalent of 86 and C5’s of 111 in 2019. As for any off-setting benefit from the arrival of the streamers, Ofcom figures show that in 2018 they produced 182 hours of original UK content compared to a total of 32,000 hours from Channel 4 and the other UK public service broadcasters. 

Yet one of the six questions in DCMS’s consultation document is “Should the government remove the publisher-broadcaster restriction to increase Channel 4’s ability to diversify its commercial revenue streams?” The government’s reasoning is quite simple: some of those companies who might consider buying C4 – even those who do some business with independent producers – also have their own in-house production companies. Owning Channel 4 would offer new synergies and opportunities for these insiders which they are bound to want to exploit to recover the cost of purchase. Keeping the publisher-broadcaster model intact would inevitably limit the number of bidders and the size of their bids. 

Chris Curtis of Broadcast magazine points out that if you allow a new C4 player “to own IP, launch in-house production or expand internationally, you can only do so at the expense of the indie sector. Attempting to stabilise a British broadcaster by undermining British production seems like an odd step”. When  Broadcast launched a ‘Not 4 Sale’ campaign,100 bosses of indies signed up. John McVay,CEO of their trade body PACT, said: “I think it’s shameful that the public interest doesn’t appear at all in this consultation document”. The former Conservative leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, said selling off C4 was “preposterous” and changing its remit risked putting indies out of business. The media analysts, Enders, concluded that if Channel 4’s current remit was preserved it posed “little attraction to a buyer for more than a modest amount’ and ‘for a profit-oriented buyer, there would be motive and opportunity to game the current remit”. 

Suddenly the Government’s rationale for change was becoming a recruiting sergeant for scepticism and opposition. Among the possible “new freedoms” which the document could be a relaxation of the requirements for news. In an interview with C4 News’ Krishnan Guru-Murthy, John Whittingdale said;  “I like C4 – it has served the purpose it was created to do brilliantly”. But when Guru-Murthy asked him whether C4’s obligation to provide an hour of news in prime time a day could change if privatisation went ahead, Whittingdale said: “I have no preconception that would change.” Less than a reassuring answer. The Channel 4 licence that sets out that the news obligation could be changed in the same way that Channel 5 is currently asking to change its news schedule. If it came to budget cuts remember no broadcasting regulator has ever intervened to protect a news budget. 

On top of all this potential room for post-privatisation flexibility the government has deliberately created a situation where nearly half of the non-executive directorships on the Channel 4 board, including the Chairmanship, will be vacant by the end of the year. Since those directors will appointed by Ofcom “in agreement with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport”  the chance will be there for the government to begin to install a board for whom privatisation is a given. The job of these new directors would not be overseeing the running of a publicly-owned broadcaster or to resist privatisation, it would be to make the transition to a new private owner as smooth as possible. 

Looking back to the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher went off the original idea of Channel 4 because after a few years she thought she had a better idea- the absorption of C4 into a merged private company with the owners of Channel 5. We shouldn’t be surprised, therefore, that this is one of the possible outcomes of the current DCMS process. The consultation document points out that “Channel 5 has thrived following its sale to ViacomCBS” and some see the American company as the most likely bidder. Tory MP Andrew Griffith, an adviser to Whittingdale, appears to want C4 to merge with ITV,C5 or Sky and a “glide path” away from the current terms of trade.  

If that happens Margaret Thatcher’s ambition may finally be realised by John Whittingdale but her most valued TV legacy, this “creative greenhouse” as C4 once called it, the “R&D”  lab of UK television, will disappear.

I have been connected with C4 for much of its history as Editor of Channel Four News, ITN Chief Executive, C4 consultant and a non-executive director of C4 for the seven and half years ending in May 2021.

A new BBC-Bashir timeline raises questions for DG Tim Davie

I prepared a new timeline on the BBC’s handling of the Martin Bashir affair in time for the appearance of three BBC Directors-General, two past one current, before the DCMS Select Committee on 15 June 2021. The timeline helps to explain how the BBC document which helped lead the former Supreme Court judge, Lord Dyson, to his critical conclusions about the BBC management of 1996 was never handed over to him by the BBC. If a copy had not been given to Lord Dyson by a former BBC executive the outcome of the independent inquiry could have been very different and probably much less critical of the BBC. The apparent disappearance of this document inside the BBC also helps to explain why the executives who re-hired Bashir seemed to know so little about his past as a proven liar at the BBC.

In addition this new timeline also examines what the current BBC Director-General,Tim Davie, knew when about Lord Spencer’s 2020 allegations against Bashir. Tim Davie has received credit for setting up an independent inquiry under Lord Dyson but the latest information suggests that his decision was not made when he first heard of Lord Spencer’s detailed allegations against Bashir but when subsequent events left him no other option. I have built this new timeline from the work of investigative journalist Andy Webb and I give full credit to him.

28 March 1996

This is not the conventional starting date for a timeline about Martin Bashir’s BBC Panorama interview with Princess Diana, after all the programme was transmitted in December 1995. 

But think of this date as the day somebody senior at the BBC realised something was wrong and raised an alarm.

Tim Gardam was the Head of Weekly Current Affairs, a man so intellectually gifted that when I interviewed him for the job of my successor as Editor of Channel Four News a decade earlier, my boss at ITN, Sir David Nicholas, suggested we had just met a future Director-General of the BBC. But we didn’t give him the job at ITN, nervous that when he said he ‘didn’t suffer fools gladly’ he meant it a little too much. Tim Gardam was subsequently appointed as Head of News and Current Affairs at the soon to be launched Channel Five and March 1996 was to be his final month at the BBC.

As Head of the Programme Department which had produced the Diana interview Gardam was asked to investigate allegations in the Mail on Sunday that Bashir had shown faked documents to Princess Diana’s brother, Lord Spencer.

Gardam wrote out in his own handwriting a record of what he had discovered and gave it to the office of the then Head of BBC News Tony Hall, later Lord Hall Director-General of the BBC. Gardam recounted how early on Bashir accepted that had asked a graphic designer to create faked documents, the preferred wording in the BBC became ‘graphicised documents’, but repeatedly denied to Gardam that he had shown them to anybody. After the Mail on Sunday pressed their allegation that he had shown them to Spencer, Gardam tried to get hold of Bashir again. Here is what he wrote at the time of his next conversation with Bashir:

‘he rang me and told me for the first time that he had shown, despite his specific denials on December 21st, and that morning, the graphicised documents to Earl Spencer’.

Gardam went on: ‘I told Bashir that this overturned every assurance the BBC had been given + the BBC would have to consider its position’.

This was a crucial moment, a BBC executive had discovered that Bashir had lied to him a number of times. Gardam later said: “It would never have occurred to me that a BBC journalist would lie to produce something to deceive someone, and then at the same time to lie to his editors and managers”.

According to Lord Dyson’s report, Tim Gardam completed his handwritten report, dated it 28 March 1996 and ‘and gave it to the office of Lord Hall’. It was in effect a handover note before he left for Channel Five. The statement was significant enough for Gardam and Tony Hall to agree that ‘the BBC needed to find out the entire truth behind Bashir’s activities’. Hall conducted that further inquiry himself with Gardam’s successor, Anne Sloman, an inquiry which Dyson was to call ‘woefully ineffective’.

When Hall later reported to the BBC Board of Governors he never mentioned this proven example of Bashir’s lies or that Bashir had breached the BBC guidelines. In fact he told them Bashir was an ‘honest and honourable man’.

It would be over 25 years before the public knew the Gardam statement existed. In fact at the next stop on this timeline the BBC specifically said it or anything similar did not exist.

APRIL 2007

The investigative journalist Andy Webb, a former BBC television reporter, submitted a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the BBC for the files on the Bashir affair. He was told by the BBC there were no documents on file. The BBC reply said:

‘Any meetings to discuss this particular programme would not have been minuted and the number of people involved in the process kept to a need-to-know basis only’.

JULY 2020 

Andy Webb tried again thirteen years. He submitted a new FoI request. The BBC changed their view about the existence of relevant documents. ‘We should have taken steps to ascertain whether relevant information was held. We apologise that this was not done, and that the answer you received was inaccurate’.

19 October 2020

The BBC released some documents to Andy Webb under Freedom of Information. The Gardam note of 28 March 1996 was not among them but a new chain of events was begun which continues to the present day.The release came too late, possibly deliberately too late, for Webb’s documentary scheduled for two days later on Channel Four,

20 October 2020 

Andy Webb decided to share with Lord Spencer one of the documents released by the BBC. Spencer was shocked by what he saw. This is what he later told Lord Dyson:

‘What I saw was utterly astonishing: a snippet from the Tony Hall report of April 1996, in which I seem to have been accused (in a heavily redacted passage) of having shown Bashir fake bank accounts to Alan Waller. I was outraged: I had done no such thing; and to make the lie worse, the BBC seemed to be falsely claiming that I had given Bashir the idea to resort to using his own fake bank statements’.

Spencer reacted by outlining to Webb his most serious allegations against Bashir, the first time he had set them out. 

21 October 2020

Webb passed on Lord Spencer’s allegations to the BBC in a detailed, private, note. These allegations involved Bashir’s use of forged bank statements, his claims that Princess Diana’s staff were agents for MI5, and that a plot existed to murder the Spencer family.

Andy Webb asked the BBC whether, in light of these very serious allegations, the BBC would consider ordering an independent inquiry’.

23 October 2020

Charlotte Morgan in the BBC Press Office replied to Andy Webb that: The BBC does not intend to take further action on events which happened twenty-five years ago.’

On the same day as the BBC reply, Lord Spencer emailed the Director-General of the BBC, Tim Davie, asking for a full inquiry. 

An email conversation began between the two of them. The details of most of these emails have not yet been released but we do know the content of one.

28 October 2020

Tim Davie emailed Lord Spencer: ‘You say the BBC’s sequence of events is incorrect and that Mr Bashir had shown you the documents before you had introduced him to the Princess of Wales. Unfortunately, the account you give does not accord with the account that Mr Bashir gave the BBC at the time. Our records show that he told us that although he had mocked up the statements before the Princess of Wales agreed to give the interview, you had already introduced them to one another and the relationship was therefore established. With Mr Bashir indisposed, unfortunately the BBC can only rely on what our historic records show’.   

It was now eight days since the BBC was made aware of the detailed allegations by Lord Spencer. Rather than propose an inquiry of any kind, their initial response was ‘to take no further action’ and their second response – specifically from the BBC DG – was that nothing more than be done for the time being. Their phrase ‘the BBC can only rely on what our historic records show’ would prove to have a sting in the tail. 

1 November 2020 

An unconfirmed timeline published by the Metro newspaper says that on this date: ‘Following Earl Spencer’s claims, BBC Director-General Tim Davie is thought to have apologised for the false statements. He reportedly wrote to Earl Spencer to make the apology but declined to open an investigation into Bashir’s conduct’. The Daily Mail also reported that doing this period Davie offered Lord Spencer a ‘piecemeal apology’. 

After the response from Tim Davie to his emails, Lord Spencer is  believed to have concluded that he had taken the private dialogue with the BBC as far as he could. He would now air his allegations in public.

2 November 2020

Lord Spencer emailed Davie enclosing a copy of a fax signed by Bashir, making lurid allegations against Tiggy Legge Bourke.

3 November 2020

The first Daily Mail front page appeared, detailing Spencer’s evidence of Bashir’s campaign of lies.

4 November 2020.

A BBC spokesperson said the corporation was happy to apologise again to Lord Spencer and promised to investigate any ‘substantive new information’. The BBC added: ‘We have asked Earl Spencer to share further information with the BBC. Unfortunately, we are hampered at the moment by the simple fact that we are unable to discuss any of this with Martin Bashir, as he is seriously unwell. When he is well, we will of course hold an investigation into these new issues’.

6 November 2020

In an interview with the BBC Radio Four programme ‘Today’ I called for an independent element in any BBC inquiry. I rejected the notion that such an inquiry had to wait for Bashir’s recovery from ill health, pointing out out that a review of the BBC’s documents could begin immediately.

The BBC later announced publicly for the first time that an inquiry would be held.

18 November 2020.

The BBC announced that a former Supreme Court Judge, Lord Dyson, would conduct a fully independent inquiry.

20 May 2021.

The BBC published the report by Lord Dyson and said ‘We recognise that it has taken far too long to get to the truth’. Tim Gardam’s statement of 28 March 1996 was published for the first time within Dyson’s report. It was a significant element proving that the BBC had established as far back as 1996 that Bashir was a proven liar. In his cross-examination of former BBC executives Lord Dyson often referred  to Gardam’s statement. 

25 May 2021

Tim Davie was interviewed by Justin Webb on the Today programme. Here are some extracts:

Webb: When did you first know that Martin Bashir had lied about these documents?

Davie: Um personally,(hesitation) I think I knew when I read Dyson, Im sorry Im not being evasive, because I’d heard the claims of Earl Spencer. Id read reports but when I knew it was when I got that Supreme Court judge to go and do the analysis and talk to everyone.

Webb: Different question then, when did you suspect it?

Davie: When I saw evidence coming to me that was firm evidence that there was clearly things that had gone horribly wrong in that investigation. If you look at what happened in late October documents were emerging and Earl Spencer put them into the public domain, they clearly indicated there were bigger problems with this investigation, that were known about and within days we had announced an investigation.

Webb: You say documents were emerging, it was a Channel Four documentary wasnt it and the point made by the documentary-maker is that the documents that he asked for were given to him two days before he made the documentary, this is October last year, in a way that must have been down could not be included in the documentary. He thinks that was deliberately done.

Davie. It wasnt.

Webb: So on your watch, everything has been done as openly as you would like.

Davie; I think we have acted appropriately and openly and responded in the right way.    

Webb: So when the BBC issued a statement saying As Managing Director of News Mr Hall fulfilled his management responsibilities’ , this statement issued last November, that was with your approval?

Davie: We absolutely had to judge things on the facts we had and thats what we did. 

Webb: You had the facts then didnt you, you had the facts presented to you, you knew perfectly well that Mr Bashir had fraudulent documents, you knew perfectly well the background within the BBC , theres no questions about that is there.

Davie; No but within days of getting substantive evidence we absolutely , Justin I cant have been more robust personally to have called in a Supreme Court Judge, until you get to that point you deal with what youve got. As soon as I had substantive evidence .. ..I have to say no other organisation in the world, in terms of the BBC ,we hold ourselves to account in a way that is unlike every other. ..

Im only interested in getting to the truth’ .

A number of journalists were struck by how uncomfortable Davie sounded when asked what he knew and when. Repeating a phrase from the BBC’s statement of 4 November he said he acted ‘as soon as I had substantive evidence’. 

But Andy Webb had emailed Lord Spencer’s detailed allegations to the BBC a full two weeks days before the BBC acknowledged the need for any inquiry of any kind and had replied to Andy Webb that The BBC does not intend to take further action on events which happened twenty-five years ago’. When Lord Spencer emailed Davie the email exchange ended with Davie saying that because of Bashir’s illness there was nothing more he could do. The bottom line is that the BBC only acted once the same ‘substantive evidence’ appeared in the Daily Mail.

11 June 2021

A newspaper was about to publish a story about the BBC’s handling of Lord Spencer’d allegations when the BBC Press Office issued a statement to them. It said that Tim Davie had not seen Tim Gardam’s 28 March 1996 statement because it was not in the BBC dossier given to Dyson. If true Davie had not known until Dyson’s report that the BBC had evidence from 1996 of Bashir’s lying.This raised the immediate question of how the statement came to be in Lord Dyson’s report. The BBC didn’t have an answer to that.

14 June 2021

Lord Dyson’s team confirmed that it was in fact Tim Gardam who had given them a copy of his March 1996 statement. In his report Dyson had said that Gardam had given the original ‘to the office of Lord Hall’ so presumably there can be no doubt that it was once in the hands of the BBC. In fact its existence is mentioned in other BBC documents. So where did it go? Unlike another missing document, the letter from Princess Diana to the BBC, this one was never tracked down. How hard did the BBC try? Just as important how fortunate was it that Tim Gardam still had a copy and gave it to Lord Dyson. Without that copy Dyson would not have got to the truth. It really is as simple as that.

15 June 2021

Three BBC Directors-General, one current and two past, appeared before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. The Committee said’Former BBC Director-Generals Lord Hall and Lord Birt will be questioned about events leading up to Panorama’s landmark interview with the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and the broadcaster’s handling of investigations into how reporter Martin Bashir obtained it’.

The current DG ,Tim Davie, and the current Chairman, Richard Sharp, also appeared.Some of the questions put to Hall and Davie appeared to be based on information in this post.

Why all this matters 

The BBC is accountable to licence-fee payers and to Parliament.  That accountability requires proper keeping of documents and, at the appropriate times, proper disclosure of those documents. The events of the past year raise the following twelve questions for Tim Davie:

1.The BBC having said in 2007 that there were no documents to release, who decided in 2020 that some should be released?

2. Who decided which documents should be released?

3. Was the Tim Gardam statement of 28 March 1996 in the BBC’s files at that point? If it was why wasn’t it released, if it wasn’t where had it gone?

4.Do you accept that if Tim Gardam had not kept a copy and given it to Lord Dyson the public would not have been given the full truth?

5. Was the disappearance of this document also one of the reasons why BBC executives don’t seem to have known the full background on Bashir when they re-hired him?

6. Why was this fact not included in the McQuarrie report published on 14 June into the re-hiring?

7.When were you, as DG of the BBC, first aware of the disappearance of the BBC’s original of the Gardam statement and did you consider it significant enough to release that information?

8. Turning now to Lord Spencer’s allegations against Bashir last October, you have said that you acted  ‘within days of getting substantive evidence’. Do you accept that after the BBC was informed on 21 October of Lord Spencer’s allegations against Martin Bashir your press office said ‘The BBC does not intend to take further action on events which happened twenty-five years ago.’

8. Do you accept that when Lord Spencer emailed you personally with the detail of his allegations an email exchange followed which ended with you  saying : ‘With Mr Bashir indisposed, unfortunately the BBC can only rely on what our historic records show’.  

9, Do you now accept that this statement was flawed because the BBC’s ‘historical records’ did not include the Gardam statement.

10, Do you accept that you only began to announce and set up any kind of inquiry after Lord Spencer’s very same allegations appeared in the Daily Mail on 2 November ?

11. In what way was the Daily Mail reporting any more ‘substantive evidence’ than the allegations already reported to the BBC on 21 October and emailed you personally by Lord Spencer on 23rd October?

12. Do you accept that rather than act once you had received ‘substantive evidence’ you sought to reach an agreement with Lord Spencer which would involve an apology but avoid an independent inquiry and that you only had to abandon that position after he refused to accept that and went to the Daily Mail. 

Disclosure of Interests: I was a BBC News journalist from 1969 to 1972 . I then joined BBC Newss principal competitor, ITN. While I was Deputy Editor of ITN in the early 1980s Martin Bashir was a freelance producer on the ITV Lunchtime News. I went on to become ITNs Editor and Chief Executive. I subsequently became Ofcoms Partner for Content and Standards where I led the investigations into breaches of the Broadcasting Code by the BBC and other broadcasters. I was a Non-Executive Director of Channel Four for the past seven years, my term finished at the end of May 2021, but I played no role in the Channels own investigations into Martin Bashir. The views in this post are written in my personal capacity and not as a past director of Channel Four.

Why the independent inquiry I called for into the Princess Diana interview has finally got to the truth but holds back on its ‘cover-up’ conclusion.

In November last year, in an interview on the BBC Radio Four programme ‘Today’, I called for an ‘independent element’ in the Corporation’s promised inquiry into Earl Spencer’s claims that Martin Bashir used ‘dirty tricks’ to land his 1995 interview with Spencer’s sister Princess Diana. In response the BBC appointed a fully independent inquiry led by a former judge, Lord Dyson. His report has now been published

Licence-fee payers have waited 25 years to have it confirmed that the BBC statement of 7th April 1996, that the ‘draft graphic reconstructions’ commissioned by Martin Bashir were ‘never connected in any way to the Panorama on Princess Diana, was completely untrue. But at least Lord Dyson has now got to the truth. Perhaps now the BBC can apologise to those employees -staff and freelance -who tried to help find the truth back then and were branded ‘persistent trouble-makers’.

I first became a sceptic about the role of the BBC’s Governors as the corporation’s regulators in the 1990s when, to combine the cliches of the time, they were the ‘supreme body’ of the BBC who were its ‘cheerleaders’ but also ‘marked its own homework’. Later, as Ofcom’s content regulator in the late 2000s, I dealt with the successors to the Governors, the BBC Trust, and saw at first-hand the BBC management’s reluctance to volunteer the full relevant facts during inquiries into controversies. So I did not mourn the end of ‘self-regulation’ when in the 2010s Parliament finally appointed Ofcom as the BBC’s fully independent regulator. 

But now in 2021 even I am shocked by the evidence in Lord Dyson’s report on the events of 1995 and 1996 when the Governors still existed. Lord Dyson has confirmed allegations that Panorama reporter Martin Bashir commissioned a graphic designer to fake documents which he showed to Princess Diana’s brother Earl Spencer. Dyson decided ‘Mr Bashir deceived and induced him to arrange a meeting with Princess Diana. ..It seems to me that the obvious reason was that he wanted to encourage Earl Spencer to introduce him to Princess Diana’. Having got the introduction he was able to arrange the interview.

Dyson says of other documents: ‘It is likely that these statements were not the product of the work of a graphic designer, but that they were created by Mr Bashir and that the information allegedly contained in them was fabricated by him’. Of Mr Bashir he says ‘there are significant parts of Mr Bashir’s account which I am unable to accept’.The word ‘lie’ appears regularly in Dyson’s report. He has ‘real reservations about Mr Bashir’s credibility and the reliability of important parts of his account and I treat his evidence with caution’.

‘I found Earl Spencer a credible witness. Regrettably, I cannot say the same of Mr Bashir’. Lord Dyson goes even further: ‘there were significant parts of Mr Bashir’s account that I reject as incredible, unreliable and, in some cases, dishonest’.

Of Bashir’s claim that it was Princess Diana who gave him the information which he put into fake documents and showed to Earl Spencer, Dyson says: ‘I conclude that Mr Bashir showed the fake statements to Earl Spencer before there was any contact between Princess Diana and himself; and certainly before he had established a close relationship with her’. In other words Princess Diana couldn’t have told him because he hadn’t met her by then.

Lord Dyson’s critique of the BBC’s handling of their 1995-6 inquiry into the affair is devastating. He calls it woeful, names names and regrets: ‘They did not approach Earl Spencer to ask him for his version of what had happened. They accepted the account that Mr Bashir gave them as truthful’.

By comparison the conclusion in his summary is noticeably restrained. He does not name any individual as being involved in a very specific ‘cover-up’ he cites.

I believe there are three major failings by the BBC in 1996 which go to the heart of the regulation of the BBC: 

1.When allegations against Martin Bashir first surfaced the inquiry by BBC management was not good enough.

2. Some significant facts which they did uncover were not revealed to the BBC Governors.

3.The Governors did not follow up on such warning signs that did appear in the management’s report to them .

If any future management of the BBC ever tried to do to Ofcom what the 1996 BBC management did to the Governors there would be one hell of a row.

These are my own detailed conclusions on the ‘Bashir’ affair ;

1.Getting the interview 

Understanding this is essential in order to to make sense of what happened later. The BBC system for requesting royal interviews at that time was called ‘Royal Liaison’. A senior executive was responsible for sifting through proposals from inside the BBC, deciding which to submit and then passing them on to the royal household. The requests would not go directly to members of the Royal Family such as Princess Diana. Lord Dyson reports: ‘On 11 February 1993, Lord Hall wrote to Commander Patrick Jephson, her Private Secretary asking whether she would be interested in taking part in a BBC Television Interview. He said that he envisaged an interview with “a respected figure, perhaps Sue Lawley”. This request was politely, but firmly refused by Commander Jephson in his letter dated 17 March 1993’. Dyson also reports that in 1995 the BBC tried again with a request for an interview, this time with BBC royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell and there were even plans for a meeting which the Princess herself had hoped to attend: “I am v. keen to be in this meeting, so please let me know when possible, the time”.

This confirms my experiences back In the mid-1980s when I made a series of ITV programmes with the Prince and Princess. She told me her ambition was to appear on BBC Panorama. I have no reason to believe Martin Bashir or anybody else on Panorama was aware of this ambition but what this does illustrate is that if somebody on the programme could get a request to her she would give it serious consideration. Lord Dyson seems to confirm this when he says: ‘it is important to add that Princess Diana would probably have agreed to be interviewed by Mr Witchell, or a BBC journalist of similar experience and reputation, even without the intervention of Mr Bashir.. It is clear that by early to mid-August 1995 at the latest, she was very keen on the idea. This was some time before Mr Bashir’s first meeting with Earl Spencer on 31 August 1995’.

But Bashir was not to know this at the time and, according to the BBC management’s original statement to the Board of Governors, in the early stages of his research that led to the interview, ‘Bashir decided that to move the story on he needed to get to the Princess of Wales and that the best route might be through Earl Spencer’. In other words by-passing the gatekeepers.

2. The BBC management’s handling of events leading up to the transmission of the interview in November 1995.

I can see no evidence that Bashir’s editor, the late Steve Hewlett, or the BBC editorial hierarchy above him, did anything wrong during this period believing as they did that Bashir was conducting a legitimate journalistic investigation. Lord Dyson says; ‘I am inclined to conclude that, having regard to the sensitivity and high-profile nature of the story, there was insufficient supervision of what Mr Bashir did, in particular in the run-up to the meeting with Princess Diana which led directly to the interview itself.’ But he goes on: ‘I am not persuaded that better supervision would have prevented Mr Bashir’s successful deception’.

3. The first allegations against Martin Bashir .

At the time of transmission the BBC editorial management took pride in their exclusive. But in April 1996 the Mail on Sunday reported that Bashir had ‘faked private bank documents just weeks before the astonishing broadcast. In an extraordinary breach of BBC journalistic ethics, he ordered a graphic designer for the flagship current affairs programme to create two bank statements’.The front page story concluded: ‘The BBC has confirmed that the documents were created but said they had not been shown on screen’.

4. The management’s inquiry into the allegations made against Martin Bashir . Lord Dyson calls it ‘woefully ineffective’.

The management failed to produce a detailed, robust timeline of events. The timeline in the documents finally released by the BBC after a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in 2020, the only one that is known to exist, does not meet that high standard. It is revealing to compare that timeline, produced by BBC executives, with the one I produced into the Savile affair in 2012 as an academic working with three students ( As a result of this weakness in their methodology the BBC Management either did not notice or chose not to highlight the glaring inconsistencies in Bashir’s account. 

The significance of this weakness is shown up in this comment by Lord Dyson to Lord Hall:’The trouble is….that you seem to have believed everything that Bashir told you about when he first met Diana, and the fact that he’d already got an established relationship with her before these documents were shown to Earl Spencer. All that comes from Bashir. But you never check that, that time sequence with Spencer, because he would have told you he fundamentally disagreed with it?’

One key moment during the internal inquiry was when Martin Bashir, after multiple denials that he had ever shown faked documents to Earl Spencer, was questioned again by Tim Gardam, then Head of BBC Weekly Current Affairs. Lord Dyson reveals: ‘This time Mr Bashir admitted having shown the documents to Earl Spencer. Mr Gardam told Mr Bashir that this overturned every assurance the BBC had been given and the BBC would have to consider its position. At his Investigation interview, Mr Gardam said:“….this [date] I remember absolutely crystal clear, because, you know, it was one of those moments when you just go cold, and I know exactly where I was standing at the time and (inaudible). I actually took a great effort not—to keep temperate, actually because I was absolutely staggered that a BBC journalist…..could have behaved like this. It would never have occurred to me that a BBC journalist would lie (a) to produce something to deceive someone, and then at the same time to lie to his editor and managers’. Extraordinarily this episode was never reported to the BBC Governors which was especially significant because, as Dyson observes: ‘There is no doubt that Mr Bashir had lied and maintained the lie until he realised that it was no longer sustainable’.

The BBC management also failed to speak to Earl Spencer. When a news organisation begins an investigation into alleged misconduct it is understandable that it is initially an internal inquiry. Until a management has got a grip of the basic facts it will want to hold off press inquiries and that can involve not speaking to outside individuals who themselves might pass on information about the internal process to the press. However there comes a moment when that risk has to be taken in order to get to the truth. Nobody from the BBC ever approached Earl Spencer other than the Editor of Panorama, the late Steve Hewlett, at an earlier stage. Lord Dyson says “this was a big mistake and the points they (and Lord Birt, the former Director-General) have made to justify their not doing so are rejected’..In my view, the failure to interview Earl Spencer was a most serious flaw in the investigation’.

Dyson goes further on the next stage of the internal investigation which was by Tony Hall (now Lord Hall, then Managing Director of News and Current Affairs at the BBC) and Anne Sloman (who had taken over from Tim Gardam in Weekly Currrent Affairs ).This stage included interviewing Martin Bashir. ‘The failure to question Earl Spencer was not the only mistake that Lord Hall and Mrs Sloman made. In my view, they cannot have scrutinised Mr Bashir’s account with the necessary degree of scepticism. Even without Earl Spencer’s version of the facts, they should have approached what Mr Bashir said with great caution for two reasons. First, they knew that Mr Bashir had lied three times on the centrally important question of whether he had shown the faked statements to anyone. This alone should have caused them to have serious doubts about his credibility. As I have said, it seems that they did not investigate the reasons for these lies. Secondly, the fact that Mr Bashir was unable to provide them with any explanation of why he had commissioned the faked statements should also have caused them to have serious doubts as to whether he was being open and honest with them’.

Which helps to explain the background to Lord Dyson’s most damning paragraph about the inquiry by Tony Hall and Anne Sloman:

‘without knowing Earl Spencer’s version of the facts; without receiving from Mr Bashir a credible explanation of what he had done and why he had done it; and in the light of his serious and unexplained lies Lord Hall could not reasonably have concluded that Mr Bashir was an honest and honourable man and should not have done so’…’the investigation conducted by Lord Hall and Mrs Sloman was flawed and woefully ineffective.’

One footnote to the investigation by BBC News management. Richard Ayre, then the BBC’s Controller of Editorial Policy who had done the pre-transmission compliance on the original programme is never mentioned during the post-transmission inquiry, only briefly in its aftermath. He told Lord Dyson that Bashir’s behaviour had been ‘clearly completely unacceptable’. So where was he during the original inquiry?

5. The BBC News management’s report to the BBC Board of Management .

One key line from Dyson about that meeting: ‘Lord Hall presented these facts to the Board as if they were uncontroversial. And yet he knew (but did not tell the Board) that they derived from Mr Bashir’s uncorroborated version of the facts and that Mr Bashir had lied on three occasions on a matter of considerable importance, i.e. whether he had shown the fake statements to anyone and, in particular, to Earl Spencer.’ Ouch.

6. The BBC Management’s Report to the Board of Governors.

In 1995 and 1996 the Governors were the highest body of the BBC but also its principal regulator. There was one external regulator, the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC) , which in the words of a Broadcasting Minister of the time ‘adjudicates upon complaints of unjust treatment of broadcast programmes which affect an individual who is mentioned or referred to or who has something to do with the programme”. I can find no evidence that the BCC investigated the programme which left the BBC Governors as the sole arbiter of its compliance with the BBC’s own standards. (Subsequent Acts of Parliament abolished the Governors and eventually handed over powers of external regulation to Ofcom).

I have serious concerns about how Tony Hall, then the Director of BBC News and Current Affairs, reported to the BBC Governors. There was a central flaw in his argument. Hall, reporting on Bashir’s pre-interview investigation, said the faked graphics ‘had no impact on the investigation or the interview’. A BBC statement on 7 April 1996 said the documents ‘were never connected in any way to the Panorama on Princess Diana’.Yet elsewhere Hall said, as mentioned earlier, that Bashir ‘needed to get to the Princess of Wales and that the best route might be through Earl Spencer’. But clearly if the faked graphics were the way that helped get him to the Princess through Spencer they did have an ‘impact on the investigation or the interview’.

There was a failure to highlight that BBC Editorial Guidelines had been breached. Broadcast regulation is based on codes and whether broadcasters observe them. The ‘Producer Guidelines’ of the time were the ones which the BBC had published in 1993. The then Director-General John Birt said in his introduction, they would ‘enable programme-makers and the public to see the editorial and ethical principles that drive the BBC’. Chapter 1 ’Straight dealing in programmes’ began with Sections 1 and 2 which include ‘Programme making for the BBC must be based on straight dealing’  and ‘The need for straight dealing covers all the activities involved in making a programme’. This latter phrase is important because it highlights that the guidelines cover all aspects of programme-making, not just what is transmitted. By arranging for fake documents to be produced and showing them to Earl Spencer Martin Bashir was – in my view- clearly not ‘straight-dealing’  and there was no public interest defence for doing that. Dyson agrees. According to his inquiries, the view inside BBC management was that ‘the creation and use of some material in the early preparation for the programme was in breach of the BBC’s Guidelines on straight dealing’. 

But, in Tony Hall’s speaking notes, eventually released by the BBC and the only evidence we have of what he said at that meeting, there is no reference to this. Therefore it seems that the BBC’s supreme body and regulator were not told that Martin Bashir had broken the rule which ‘enable programme-makers and the public to see the editorial and ethical principles that drive the BBC’. Nor did Tony Hall propose any sanction on Bashir other than a warning letter Hall would write to him. No such letter was released by the BBC in its FOI documentation. Lord Dyson says that a letter to Bashir was drafted but it was not from Tony Hall and ‘It seems probable that this letter of reprimand was not sent’.

Revealingly the draft letter ends ‘We believe that no purpose is served by making this a matter of public record’. That policy seems to have extended to telling the public’s guardians at the BBC, the Governors.

The only sanctions Tony Hall ever mentioned at the time would be against those individuals who had expressed concern at a possible breach of the guidelines.They were called ‘persistent trouble-makers’. Tony Hall told the then Director-General John Birt; ‘between now and the summer, we will work to deal with leakers and remove persistent trouble- makers from the programme’.

We now know some of what else that meant. A former Publicity Officer for Panorama gave evidence to Lord Dyson that she recalled being asked to inform the Panorama team that the BBC was briefing the press that it suspected that stories about fake bank statements were being leaked by jealous colleagues. ‘I was asked to make this remark. I do recall it, yes, and I do recall a certain amount of hostility about that, which was tricky for me, because obviously I had to work with all of those journalists on different programmes each week’.

Lord Dyson’s verdict on that : ‘Lord Hall rightly recognised that such briefing was quite wrong and fell far below the standards of fairness and integrity for which the BBC is renowned’.

There was a failure to report the limitations of the investigation. Nothing in Tony Hall’s statement to the Board of Governors on his ‘personal investigation’ indicates any limitations on how it was conducted or in what he could report to the Board about it. For example the Governors were not told that despite the significance of Bashir’s meetings with Lord Spencer the BBC management had not spoken to Spencer about them. Therefore the Board was entitled to assume that he had come to an unqualified conclusion when he said that he was “certain there had been no question of Bashir trying to mislead or do anything improper with the document”.

6. The response of the BBC Governors

So far no evidence has been produced by the BBC then or now to suggest that the Governors raised any concerns about what Tony Hall told them or even asked questions. For example none of them seems to have raised the central flaw in the report to them, that if the faked documents helped get Bashir to Spencer and onwards to the Princess they did have a relevance and importance. It would appear that the Governors simply accepted the report. It is very significant that Lord Dyson only mentions the Governors once in his whole report. Which tells you how insignificant they were as a regulator in this case.

7. The BBC’s subsequent reliance on the ‘Diana letter’. 

Back in 1996 a letter sent by the Princess to the BBC was pointed to by the Corporation as evidence that the faked documents had played no part in her decision to give an interview to Panorama. The letter said: ‘Martin Bashir did not show me any documents nor give me any information that I was not previously aware of. I consented to the interview on Panorama without any undue pressure and have no regrets’.

A careful reading of this letter suggests that it is a much more limited vindication of Bashir than has been suggested. Nothing the Princess says clears Bashir of the charge that he used a forged document or documents to get access to Earl Spencer and thus to her. Saying that Bashir did not show her any documents that she was ‘not previously aware of’ has limited significance. She may already have been aware of them because of what Bashir had claimed to Earl Spencer. Her phrase ‘I consented to the interview on Panorama without any undue pressure’ has to be seen in the context of the Princess’s ambition to appear on Panorama. In short the Princess did not clear Martin Bashir of the specific charges against him.

The Editorial Policy executive at the time, Richard Ayre, told Lord Dyson: “She said that he had given her no information “that I was not previously aware of”. That would seem to me not to exclude the possibility that he gave her what she calls information about alleged payments or alleged spying on her, or whatever, which she did believe she was previously aware of. In other words, if he reinforced a belief she already had, and if he reinforced it by telling her something which he did not know to be true, then that would still be deception’. Again where was Ayre when the BBC was making much of the significance of the letter.

Lord Dyson’s conclusion in his summary.

Considering all of the above and all the other detail in the Dyson report his conclusion is extremely limited in scope.

‘Without justification, the BBC fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark by (i) covering up in its press logs such facts as it had been able to establish about how Mr Bashir secured the interview [201] to [298] and [300]; and (ii) failing to mention Mr Bashir’s activities’.

So what are these press logs Dyson refers to? These are where the BBC records the statements prepared in response to questions from the Mail on Sunday, statements such as ‘the draft graphic reconstructions on which this story are based have no validity and have never been published. They were set up in the early part of an investigation and were discarded when some of the information could not be substantiated. They were never in any way connected to the ‘Panorama’ on Princess Diana, and there was never any intention to publish them in the form in which they have been leaked’.

Claiming that the ‘draft graphic reconstructions’ were ‘never in any way connected to the Panorama on Princess Diana’ and a subsequent exchange with the Independent led Dyson to talk of a BBC cover-up : ‘I am satisfied that the BBC covered up in its press logs such facts as it had been able to establish about how Mr Bashir secured the interview’.

There is no suggestion in Lord Dyson’s conclusion in his summary that the cover-up went any further or higher. But in the body of his report he asks openly ‘WAS THERE A COVER UP BY THE BBC? He points a finger at an unnamed somebody, expressing scepticism that every BBC News editor chose not to report the newspaper allegations against Bashir without a ‘party line’ being issued: ‘there was no good reason not to mention the issue at all on any news programme. By failing to do so, the BBC fell short of the high standards of integrity and transparency which are its hallmark. The documents that I have read and the oral testimony that I have heard do not enable me to make a finding as to who was responsible for deciding that the story should not be covered by the BBC and for issuing the “official line” to editors to which I have referred. It must have been someone from senior management, but I can’t say who it was’.

I cannot remember any previous independent inquiry going so deeply into editorial decision-making at the BBC. But other than whoever that ‘someone from senior management’ might be or the unspecified person or people who were responsible for the press logs, Lord Dyson chooses not to name anybody in his allegation of a cover-up. Nor does he choose to extend the allegation of a cover-up to the briefings given to the Board of Management and the Board of Governors. I suspect the hand of a lawyer or two is involved.

Issues not covered by Lord Dyson

‘The Right Honourable Lord Dyson’, as he signs off, also mentions a number of times that a certain issue ‘is of no direct relevance to my Terms of Reference’. He lists five ‘ISSUES I HAVE NOT ADDRESSED IN THIS REPORT’. I think two of them are especially significant, numbers three and four on his list:

‘The third is why Mr Bashir was re-engaged by the BBC in 2016. Although it might be argued that this question is in some way related to my Terms of Reference, I do not consider that it is sufficiently closely related to them to justify my examining and reaching any conclusions on it. The BBC’s investigations were completed twenty years before Mr Bashir was re- engaged.The fourth is whether there was a culture at the BBC of hostility towards whistleblowers’.

In my own opinion these two issues have to be addressed by current BBC management before they can claim to ‘move on’. I would add one further issue; why did the BBC management claim for so long in response to Freedom of Information requests that there were no files on the Bashir affair when we now know these did exist.

And Finally.

Having read all 322 paragraphs of Lord Dyson’s report, I would point to the section beginning at paragraph 247.Two sentences written by a senior BBC executive at the time reflected their attitude then to the allegations against Bashir. Anne Sloman who had interviewed Bashir with Tony Hall, wrote this about what she called this ‘sordid saga’:

‘The Diana story is probably now dead, unless Spencer talks. There’s no indication that he will’.

Questioned by Lord Dyson she said ‘It was unfortunate wording’ and concluded ‘it was true, wasn’t it? It was true for 25 years’.

Maybe now this chapter can close with a new generation of broadcast journalists hopefully realising that ‘straight dealing’ means what it says.

Disclosure of Interests: I was a BBC News journalist from 1969 to 1972 . I then joined BBC News’s principal competitor, ITN. While I was Deputy Editor of ITN in the early 1980s Martin Bashir was a freelance producer on the ITV Lunchtime News. I went on to become ITN’s Editor and Chief Executive. I subsequently became Ofcom’s Partner for Content and Standards where I led the investigations into breaches of the Broadcasting Code by the BBC and other broadcasters. I have been a Non-Executive Director of Channel Four for the past seven years, my term finishes at the end of May 2021, but I have played no role in the Channel’s own investigations into Martin Bashir. The views in this post are written in my personal capacity and not as a director of Channel Four. At one point in the preparation of their new investigation into the Bashir affair the current BBC Panorama team asked my views on the regulatory aspects but I was not interviewed for the programme.

Exclusive: the documents that reveal John Major and Downing Street’s 1995 ‘stop Murdoch plan’.

This article appears in the September 2019 edition of the Royal Television Society journal ‘Television’:

During these past twelve months Rupert Murdoch has been only half the man in the UK he used to be. But that’s only by one measure – Ofcoms share of referenceswhich calculates which news sources are consumed across different media. It was a year ago, September 2018, when the 87 year olds long association with BSkyB came to an end. When his new ally Disney was defeated in a bidding war by Comcast for the shares in BSkyB which 21st Century Fox did not already own, he left that particular field of battle with £11.6 billion to regroup in the U.S. His News UK company still owns the Times, Sunday Times and Sun newspapers and the Wireless Group. So one of the most successful figures in commercial media for the past two decades hasnt gone away but the perception of his power is undoubtedly diminished.

Part of that perception has always been based on his access to British Prime Ministers, normally through the side or back door of Ten Downing Street but on one memorable occasion in 1995 a PM in waiting,Tony Blair, flew to a News Corporation conference in Australia. Murdoch joked that if this flirtation were ever consummated Tony, I suspect we will end up making love like two porcupines – very carefully.

By contrast with the supportive Margaret Thatcher and the flirtatious Tony Blair it is striking to see in Cabinet Office files for 1995 , just released to the National Archives, what one of John Majors officials proposes as ‘’The Stop Murdoch plan. These documents give fascinating insights at a time when Major wanted the political support of The Sun and Murdoch wanted a clear regulatory run to launch digital satellite television.

In the 1993 files there were such details as Major deciding to discourage Cabinet Ministers from attending Rupert Murdochs 1 September jamboree. The aggressive mood in Downing Street was partly explained by the cuttings in the file which chronicle the attacks in the columns of The Sun: Dithering Major, Pigmy PM,not up to the job,1001 reasons why you are such a plonker John, a broken man,a discredited Prime Minister. The then Editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie said he once told Major on the phone I’ve got a large bucket of shit lying on my desk and tomorrow morning I’m going to pour it all over your head.

By 1995 two voices told Major all was not lost, there was still a chance Murdoch might yet bring his papers back behind the Conservatives. One was a legendary Murdoch fixer, Lord Woodrow Wyatt, whod earlier been a key go-between with Margaret Thatcher. He wrote to Downing Street informing them that Murdoch is coming round pretty well and certainly does not want a Blair victory, despite his flirting in Australia. John Majors then Press Secretary, Christopher Meyer, later British Ambassador to Washington, copied Wyatts note to the Prime Minister adding that Murdochs papers having given generous space to Blair, have started to hedge their bets.

If the unspoken implication was careful you dont upset him too much on broadcasting matters, there was strong push-back from inside and outside Downing Street. His Private Secretary for Home Affairs, Racheal Reynolds, put forward a cross-media plan to make sure that the 20% limit on ownership of ITN should be enforced and that we should signal our intention to ensure open access to satellite and cable television (the stop Murdochplan). Ms Reynolds, remembered by colleagues as very feisty, also warned against policies which would let the likes of Murdoch become even more powerful.

Reynoldss colleague in the Policy Unit, Dominic Morris, told Major that unless they made digital terrestrial television a success, Mr Murdoch could- eventually- dominate British TV via satellite and his programmes on cable. Morris warned that  that Public interest broadcasting would be pushed into a ghetto. A master of the accessible policy memo throughout a career that later took him to the BBC, ITC and Ofcom, Morris highlighted the importance of conditional access on digital satellite – and how Murdoch could not be allowed to have the complete lockwhich he had on analogue. He asked if the Prime Minister was Content with the above approach?. John Major gave his approval by circling the word Content.

The key battle is for control of the Digital Gateway into the homeargued one other person with direct access to Major, the Director-General of the BBC. We learned from John Birts memoirs of a meeting with Major who was deeply hostile to Murdoch whose papers had been merciless at his expenseand how the PM went on to despair about the growth of satellite and its impact on BritainWhy did the BBC have to collaborate with Sky on sport?.

What the archives now reveal is a letter Birt sent to Major in July 1995 after a dinner with their wives in which he forecast with great foresight the digital revolution which lay ahead and asked How can Murdoch be stopped?. He wrote that the most important of the radical implications of the digital revolution was the monopolistic position in this new digital world that Rupert Murdoch  is poised to win for himself with hardly anyone  seeming to appreciator his game plan. Had Murdoch or his senior executives seen the letter they would probably observed the irony of what they saw as the head of a monopolistic BBC directly lobbying a PM who earlier had lobbied him not to co-operate on sport with BSkyB. In their mind Birt and Murdoch were doing the same thing, trying to develop new markets for their organisations.

All was now set for a meeting between Major and Murdoch on 13 September 1995. Press Secretary Christopher Meyer said We want Murdoch to leave Downing Street convinced that Blair is going to have a real fight on his hands. Rachael Reynolds warned Just be aware if he says what a saviour he is.

There is no account of the actual meeting in the files, but thats not suspicious. About that time I was invited to a one-to-one with Major in the Cabinet Room where he asked what I would like the forthcoming legislation to say about the ownership of ITN. I told him and it duly became law. No record of that seems to exist either.

We can tell that Major wanted to keep lines of direct communication open to Murdoch because when he wrote to him saying how much he had enjoyed their conversation, he sent a further invitation:Norma and I would be delighted if you and Anna could come and have lunch one weekend at Chequers.

In 2016 Rupert Murdoch wrote to the Guardian I have made it a principle all my life never to ask for anything from any prime minister.  In these newly-released files there is no evidence to disprove that. But perhaps he doesnt need to ask, politicians will have taken the trouble to find out what he wants and his executives can do any necessary asking for him. For example after the Murdoch meeting Major arranged for Sam Chisholm of BSkyB to meet the Head of his Policy Unit to discuss encryption and technology.

Eventually Major, following the advice of his Policy Unit and John Birt, imposed some regulatory controls on digital TV gatekeepers. But Prime Ministers can never forget that Murdochs editors always have those large buckets on their desks. Two years later The Sun attacked Majors Government as tired and dividedand proclaimed on the front-page The Sun Backs Blair.

Britain’s fragmented politics and Brexit are challenging the UK’s broadcasters, especially the BBC, as never before

This article appeared first in ‘Television’ the Journal of the Royal Television Society:


In May 2018, the top two UK parties, as measured in opinion polls and real votes cast in elections, were Labour and the Conservatives. A year later, they had been displaced by the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats.

One man’s journey during just three of those 12 months helps to illustrate this wacky new world of UK politics. In March 2019, he left one party to help create another, which started with one name, changed to a different one and then changed back. He then joined a third party, saying that he should probably have gone with it in the first place.

You probably have run out of sympathy for Chuka Umunna and his voyage from Labour to the Liberal Democrats via the Independent Group aka Change UK. But spare a thought for broadcasters trying to observe the regulatory requirement for “due impartiality” in these unusual times.

The Ofcom “Digest of evidence of past electoral support and current support”, sent to broadcasters before the European elections to help them make their judgements, contained no mention of the eventual winner, the Brexit Party, which had only just been created.

One respected political observer, Rafael Behr of the Guardian, says the Brexit referendum has turned out to be “a meltdown in the reactor core at the heart of British politics”. Some of the fallout from the continuing fragmentation of British politics has landed on the BBC.

“Dear BBC, you must get the detail right’”

“If BBC News continues to distort and withhold information from viewers there will be trouble,” tweeted Telegraphcolumnist Allison Pearson. “Oh my… has it come to this?’ replied BBC correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones. A BBC News executive accused two predecessors who were reviewing the current output of “making a few bob to supplement their pensions as armchair generals”.

The Observer asked: “Is BBC News broken?” The first of its contributors began: “Our national broadcaster has been defeated by Brexit.” Then came the Our Next Prime Ministerdebate, summed up by the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland as “a painful hour delivered via a format that featured too much crosstalk and too little cross-examination”.

How exactly did it “come to this” and what’s to be done?

It was as far back as a decade and a half ago that the BBC got its first warning that a UK referendum on the EU would mean trouble for the corporation.

In 2005, an independent panel of outside experts, chaired by Lord Wilson of Dinton, the former cabinet secretary Richard Wilson, was appointed by the then­governors. The panel predicted that “a referendum period makes unconventional demands on broadcasters in that balance consists of giving equal treatment to the Yes and No campaigns, rather than to government and opposition spokespeople”.

The experts forecast that the referendum would “free voters from party affiliations, introduce non-politicians to the political arena and divide the loyalty of parliamentarians”.

The particular referendum they were referring to never actually happened. As it turned out, Britain didn’t need to vote in 2006 on a constitution for Europe because electors in France and the Netherlands stopped the proposed treaty in its tracks.

But when, in 2016, the UK finally did get the chance to vote on Europe the panel’s 2005 prediction that a referendum would “free voters from party affiliations” was immediately validated. Voters now seem to find it easier to identify as leavers or remainers rather than Conservative or Labour.

The impact of the BBC’s 2016 referendum coverage on its reputation was significant. As part of an action plan after the critical report in 2005, the coverage of Europe had been improved by the appointment of a Europe editor, currently the award-winning Katya Adler. The unconscious Europhile mindset had been replaced by a commitment to “deliver to audiences impartial and independent reporting of the campaign, providing them with fair coverage and rigorous scrutiny of the policies and campaigns of all relevant parties and campaign groups”.

Given their past distrust of the BBC’s coverage, the Leave campaign was always going to be cynical and sceptical about this conversion – and remains so to this day. What was more surprising and significant was that the Remain campaigners also turned against the BBC, particularly once they knew they had lost the referendum.

Craig Oliver, who, as David Cameron’s director of communications, oversaw the Remain campaign, said the problem was that the BBC searched for “the perfect symmetry in coverage of Leave and Remain” at the expense of challenging protagonists on the basis of facts.

Others on his side constantly asked why the BBC was not challenging more often the claim that £350m would be released for the NHS. The BBC’s said it had challenged it, but it didn’t have an iconic moment such as Tom Bradby’s ITV confrontation with Boris Johnson in the back of the very bus that bore the claim.

The complainants no longer seemed to trust the corporation. “False equivalence” became their battle cry when leavers were offered the chance to rebut what remainers saw as accepted facts and consensus opinions.

Anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller now believes that “it seems to have got much worse since the EU referendum, this idea at the BBC that you have got to give equal weight to both sides, even if one side is telling a lie”.

Professor Steven Barnett, a long-time supporter of the BBC, was so unhappy with some of its analysis of the Euro elections that he recently tweeted: “Dear BBC News, this is precisely the kind of detail that your reporters are consistently getting wrong and you must get right.”

The BBC’s current view, as stressed in its recent European election guidelines, is that “the election needs to be seen both through the prism of Brexit and through the distinctions of party”.

The corporation has found it difficult to reflect or refract all the political colours of the UK in 2019, and its chief political advisor, Ric Bailey, says there is a “tension between the binary nature of issues such as Brexit and the fragmentation of party political loyalties”.

“‘Broadcasters have more freedom than ever [but] they don’t always take it’”

At the start of my 50 years in broadcasting, the election-time rules were just plain wrong. A committee decided how many election broadcasts each party should have and that became the formula for news coverage. Parties would ring up after each bulletin and argue about every extra 30 seconds they claimed the other side had got. In 1992, I announced that ITN would “throw away the stop watch” and decide the news coverage on news values alone.

Others followed but broadcasters found it difficult to break away from the equation “‘equal time equals balance equals due impartiality”. It doesn’t and shouldn’t. The old rules have fallen away and broadcasters have more freedom than ever to interpret how to achieve due impartiality during and outside elections. They don’t always take it.

At the time of the 2016 referendum the BBC insisted that “news judgements continue to drive editorial decision-making in news-based programmes”. The BBC – and, indeed, all broadcasters – have to keep asserting the primacy of this doctrine over a time-based formula and be bolder in defending it.

Feedback (Credit: BBC)

The head of BBC newsgathering, Jonathan Munro, told the Radio 4 programme Feedback last month that the BBC was now reviewing its approach to election coverage, particularly in the light of the increased use of social media. He called it “an evolution rather than a moment of change”.

There are bound to be different views inside the BBC about the speed of that evolution, but innovations such as Reality Check and Brexitcast show that there are new ways in which audiences can check facts and taste the many and varied flavours of UK politics. Broadcasters need to seize these or face more hostility as Brexit continues to dominate the news agenda.