About Stewart Purvis

Formerly: CEO and Editor-in-Chief of ITN,President of EuroNews,Ofcom Partner for Content and Standards,Visiting Professor of Broadcast Media at Oxford University,Professor of Television Journalism at City University London,Advisor to House of Lords Committee on Communications. Currently: Non-executive director of Channel Four Corporation,Trustee of SSVC, Chairman of Royal Television Society TV Journalism Awards,co-author of 'Guy Burgess -the Spy Who Knew Everyone' and creator of 'The Hampstead Spies' guided walk.

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 http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/aboutthebbc/reports/reports/dyson-report-20-may-21.pdf

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 (https://profpurvis.com/2012/11/22/the-newsnight-crisis-at-the-bbc-a-new-timeline-from-the-death-of-savile-to-the-appointment-of-hall/) 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.

Beware any unintended consequences of the online harms white paper

This article was published in the May 2019 edition of the Royal Television Society magazine ‘Television’ .

In May 2018 the Government announced that later in that year it would publish a full White Paper ‘that will cover the full range of online harms’. In September 2018 with no publication date yet in sight the Financial Times reported that ministers were grappling with how to force technology companies to take more responsibility for online content. Government intervention was said to be part of an international trend, Germany had introduced fines for platforms that fail to remove hate speech within 24 hours, but the UK would be the first in Europe to go further. A joint letter, signed by the heads of the BBC, Sky, ITV, Channel 4, and BT, had argued for independent regulatory oversight of content posted on social media platforms. However the FT reported ‘Stewart Purvis, a former Ofcom official, said he has yet to see a workable proposal for increasing oversight of social media companies’. 

A year on we finally have the White Paper and I, for one, think the time has been well spent by DCMS and the Home Office on proposals that could indeed be workable. But the focus has moved to become whether their plan will have unintended consequences which will limit freedom of speech.

The 98 page White Paper ‘Online Harms’ goes further than any previous British administration has dared to tread. ‘This is a complex and novel area for public policy’ is an elegant understatement. Politicians who once seemed in awe of the tech companies now threaten todisrupt the business activities of a non-compliant company’ even those based outside the UK. The global giants who I once witnessed showing open contempt for national governments could be fined or banned, their directors held criminally liable. The days when the tech giants said they were ‘mere conduits’ for the material they distributed seem long gone. 

The political momentum for change became unstoppable the month before publication after what the White Paper calls ‘a co-ordinated cross-platform effort to generate maximum reach of footage of the attack’ in mosques in New Zealand when the gunman live-streamed his shooting on Facebook Live.

The document is full of good reasons why something has to be done. No less than 23 ‘online harms in scope’ are listed, child exploitation and distributing terrorist content top the list. But many of the harms on the list are already illegal and no new offences are created. Specifically, as Paul Herbert of Goodman Derrick has pointed out, the Government has decided against creating any new offences for hosting illegal or harmful content which he says would have been a ’radical challenge’. No bloggers will go to jail unless it is for something that is already illegal. 

Instead the White Paper targets companies like Facebook, Snapchat and YouTube who allow users to share or discover user-generated content or interact with each other online. They would have a new statutory duty of care to take more responsibility for the safety of their users and tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services. A new independent regulator, mostly funded by industry, would enforce it. This approach has been generally welcomed. The tech companies are no longer pushing back against new legal obligations as forcefully as they used to, in public at least. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg told Congress in April that he would welcome regulation, but with the rider that it had to be the right regulation. 

The public debate about what is the right regulation for the UK has been mostly about the possibility of unintended consequences. Comparisons with North Korea-style censorship have been littered around rather carelessly but the Society of Editors correctly focused on the potential weak spot in the Government’s ideas; ‘Where the white paper moves into areas concerning the spread of misinformation – so called fake news – we should all be concerned. Who will decide what is fake news?’ 

In his reply the DCMS Secretary, Jeremy Wright, accepted that the breadth of the proposals means they will affect ‘organisations of all sizes including social media platforms, file hosting sites, public discussion forums, messaging services and search engines’. But seeking to reassure the older media he said ’Journalistic or editorial content will not be affected by the regulatory framework’. The proposed new independent regulator ‘will not be responsible for policing truth and accuracy online’. Where services are ‘already well regulated’ by bodies like the press self-regulators IPSO and IMPRESS Mr Wright says ‘we will not duplicate those efforts’.

In Whitehall’s mind the news world seems to divide between the ‘real journalism’ that comes from what we used to call Fleet Street and the ’fake journalism’ emanating from The Internet Research Agency of 55 Savushkina Street, Saint Petersburg. If only life was so simple.The world has moved on from the days when only journalists did journalism. In the White Paper there are moments when you wonder if the drafters understand how journalists and non-journalists alike use social media to distribute news and opinion, how comment sections on sites can be as important as the original ‘journalistic’ article.

For an example of the simplistic approach take paragraph 4 of the section of the White Paper headed ‘The Problem’: 

‘Social media platforms use algorithms which can lead to ‘echo chambers’ or ‘filter bubbles’, where a user is presented with only one type of content instead of seeing a range of voices and opinions.This can promote disinformation by ensuring that users do not see rebuttals or other sources that may disagree’ 

What about the thousands of single-minded and occasionally bloody-minded partisan voices offering independent commentary which are an essential part of the internet. They do not seek to offer a balanced view of the world and readers would not expect a right to reply. This paragraph almost sounds like an echo from last year’s recommendation from the otherwise well-informed Digital,Culture, Media and Sport Committee that the Government use the Ofcom rules on impartiality to set standards for online content.

To offset any concerns about possible Government restrictions on ‘freedom of expression online’ and ‘a free, open and secure internet’ there are reassurances in the White Paper that seek to go beyond fine words. The independent regulator – either Ofcom or a new body – will be told to focus on protecting users from the most harmful content ‘not judging what is true or not’. If the regulator is to be Ofcom we can be sure their experience in broadcasting will be valuable in making the expected ‘difficult judgement calls’.

Ian Murray of the Society of Editors said he welcomed the reassurance from DCMS ‘but we must always be ever vigilant of the laws of unintended consequences and what some politicians or a future government may do to use online harms legislation to restrict freedom of speech’.

There is now a consultation period until 1st July and vigilance will indeed be needed to ensure that when legislation is finally presented to parliament the unintended, the unanticipated and the unforeseen do not flow from what is otherwise a sensible, practical and important law.

What going back to football reporting has taught me about the state of the UK’s local news media and what it means for local democracy

The Cairncross Review was set up by the UK Government to consider ‘how to sustain the production and distribution of high-quality journalism in a changing market’. They invited those interested to submit evidence, so I did .This is my evidence:

I was a BBC News Trainee, an ITN producer who became the Editor and Chief Executive, a senior Ofcom executive who oversaw a review of the UK’s local media, a Professor of Journalism at City University who wrote a book on ethics and an adviser to the DCMS on the BBC Charter Review. I am currently a Non-Executive Director of Channel Four, an author and a football reporter for the Brentford Supporters Trust known as ‘Bees United’. I am submitting a short case study on my experiences at Brentford Football Club together with my thoughts on the wider implications, informed by my earlier career.

Brentford Football Club is in the top ten of the English Football League (EFL), the third biggest league in Europe as measured by attendance. The club is widely admired for its innovative approach and this season is considered a candidate for promotion to the Premier League. A new stadium is being built to help attract further support across the club’s catchment area which is the half a million people who live in the London Boroughs of Hounslow and Ealing. Yet when the club plays matches and holds its weekly press conference sometimes nobody from the local media turns up to report them. Together with two other season-ticket holders who are also former journalists, we decided that if the country’s big local media groups couldn’t be relied on to cover the Brentford story, then we would. As three unpaid volunteers we have now covered every match and media event so far this season posting text, stills, audio and video and building up our own following online and in social media.

This situation came about in the spring of 2018 when what was then called Trinity Mirror announced a series of redundancies and one of them was the reporter who covered every Brentford match and press conference for the Hounslow Chronicle and the GetWestLondon website. Instead another reporter was tasked with covering a number of clubs in West and East London, many of whom, of course, play at the same time on a Saturday. During the pre-season it became clear that the presence of Trinity Mirror (by now renamed Reach) was unpredictable, sometimes they would be present in some form but often not. If no local reporter turned up to question the club’s Head Coach a member of the in-house communications team would do it instead.

After the first Championship match of the season at Brentford, a former Fleet Street news editor wrote an article ‘Brentford’s local press coverage has become yesterday’s news’ on a fan website.https://beesotted.com/brentfords-local-press-coverage-has-become-yesterdays-news/ . Jim Levack wrote:  ‘For the first time in the club’s professional league existence there was no local media representation at the game…It’s a damning indictment of the lack of investment in local and regional media, but also a tragedy for the club and its fans at a time when the side’s potential has never been greater.”

Reach decided to reply to the criticism https://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/2018/news/publisher-defends-coverage-of-football-club-despite-claim-no-reporter-at-game/ It said it had provided four separate pieces of coverage on the match via its football news website http://www.football.london

What is significant is what Reach did not say, they did not say they had been present at the game. The industry website ‘Hold the Front Page’ reported that it had ‘asked for further clarification on whether a reporter was physically present at Griffin Park but Reach has yet to respond’. Perhaps reacting to this criticism, Reach has since been represented at some events in some form but rarely the same person from the same part of Reach, which now publishes  everything from local media in West London to the Daily Mirror and Daily Express.

It is technically possible for anybody to provide coverage of Brentford FC’s press conferences without ever attending by viewing the videos which the club posts on its website. It is technically possible to cover a match without attending by monitoring websites, social media or audio services. In many ways the digital world creates opportunities for accessing content without attending events. But from a reporter’s point of view it is absolutely not the same as being there.

We in the Bees United reporting team know that to be true because by attending we get to ask our own questions, some of which the club’s representatives have chosen not to ask, we get our own stories, we talk to our own sources and witness events for ourselves. And of course some of what we ask and report gets picked up and repeated by Reach on their website http://www.football.london

So, one might ask, if a group of volunteers step in and fill a gap left by traditional local media surely that is a success for ‘a new model’? In truth it is a fragile model, that depends on the commitment of volunteers, their availability and their ability to fund themselves.

Apply the lessons of this case study to coverage of local events which may be of less interest to the local public but of more truly public interest. Imagine a local council press conference where only the in-house communications team turn up with, at best, a local blogger alongside them.

Brentford Football Club have wondered whether it is worth putting their Head Coach up for questions if nobody from the local media turns up. The read across from this to local councils is why would the leader of a council put aside time to be available to an audience of potentially nobody when an easier alternative is to work out their own questions and answers with their own in-house communications team.

A physical presence at an event is not just a ‘nice to have’. It is an essential part of our local democracy. That is why when I was one of the advisers to DCMS on the BBC Charter Renewal I supported the principle of a publicly funded intervention to increase the number of reporters covering public bodies, which eventually became the BBC Local Partnership. However I have some doubts about the execution of this scheme.

These are:

  1. The funding has overwhelmingly gone to legacy players in the local media e.g Reach, Johnston Press and Newsquest with little support going to innovative new models in news-gathering.
  2. The legacy players have an incentive to use that funding to subsidise existing staff rather than appoint new staff.They also have an incentive to prevent funding going to new players who they see as competitors.
  3. There appears to be no outside scrutiny of how the BBC and the NMA operate the scheme using licence-fee money.
  4. Access to the content created under the scheme seems unreasonably limited to legacy media.

I therefore suggest:

1.The BBC should commission a thorough review and audit of the scheme by an outside body which should be published. In particular there should be detailed scrutiny of whether the 150 reporters are truly additional to the staffing of the news organisations within which they work or has the licence fee money been used to pay people those organisations already employed.

2. After that review is published, DCMS should ask Ofcom, the regulator of the BBC , to take specific oversight of the partnership scheme and to publish its own findings each year.

3. Given that companies such as Facebook have privately inquired (see Alan Rusbridger’s recent book) as to whether they can help provide funding to schemes which offset some of the impact of their success, thought needs to be given to how such private or philanthropic funding can be fed into public interventions such as the BBC Local Partnership scheme.

4.Once the review of the existing scheme has taken place, the oversight by Ofcom has been established and a mechanism for adding non licence-fee money has been found, this scheme has the potential to increase further the number of reporters on the ground asking the right questions on behalf of citizens and  sharing the content they create as widely as possible. Extra funding could be converted into extra coverage, extending the scheme to provide greater public access to reports of courts and inquests.

‘Today it doesn’t look like such a rubbish strategy’: Alan Rusbridger feels ‘vindicated’ after the ‘frightening’ moment that cost him the Chair of the Scott Trust.

On 10th September 2018 the Media Society held an event in London titled ‘Alan Rusbridger in conversation with Stewart Purvis’. This is my blog about that conversation, the audio is available in a Media Society podcast at https://www.mixcloud.com/themediasociety/alan-rusbridger-discusses-his-new-book-with-stuart-purvis/

Alan Rusbridger has written a hell of a good book about journalism; ‘Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now’ based on the first two decades of digital disruption which coincided with his time as Editor of the Guardian. 

Don’t got to it looking for simple solutions for the problems he outlines. One reviewer, Peter Wilby in the New Statesman, counted no fewer than 554 question marks among the 442 pages of Rusbridger’s book.

And don’t expect any mention of the period after his departure from the Guardian when, in the words of the New York Times at the time; ‘ he was cast as a negligent manager who had saddled the paper with a slew of problems’. The invitation for him to return to the Guardian family as the Chairman of its owner, the Scott Trust, was withdrawn. Another reviewer of the book, Robert Kaiser in the Financial Times, says that Rusbridger’s ‘awkward farewell to the institution he joined in 1979 isn’t mentioned in Breaking News — an odd but certainly diplomatic omission’.

After ten or so interviews into his book promotion itinerary nobody, it seemed, had asked Alan about this period in his life. So when I found myself ‘In Conversation with Alan Rusbridger’ before a full house in the Soho Bar of the Groucho Club in London, I thought I would.

First we talked about his big moments in journalism – defeating Jonathan Aitken in a libel case by a piece of evidence discovered at the very last minute without which his career may have came to a sudden halt, supporting Nick Davies through his revelations about phone-hacking and how Rebekah Brooks had once predicted the saga would end with Alan Rusbridger on his knees, begging for mercy’, how ‘everything about dealing with Julian Assange was difficult’ when working together on the Wikileaks release of American diplomatic cables and, perhaps the Pulitzer Prize winning climax, Edward Snowden’s story told to two Guardian journalists in a Hong Kong hotel room ‘cluttered with unwashed clothes and half-eaten hotel food’ and how two GCHQ technicians came to the Guardian to ensure the destruction of the London copy of Snowden’s electronic documents knowing full well that there was another copy in the States.

We talked too about what we wrote after his first encounter with the internet in 1994: ‘fascinating, intoxicating…it is also crowded out with bores, nutters, fanatics and middle managers from Minnesota who want the world to see their home page and CV’.

Which brought us, inevitably, to the chapter titled ‘The Money Question’, and the strategy of ‘reach before revenue’, building an audience not just in the UK but worldwide that would eventually produce advertising which would pay for the content. This meant being free,‘open’ is the word he prefers, and relying in the meantime  on ‘second-hand car sales’, the profits from Autotrader which funded the Scott Trust, the owners of the Guardian.

In 2014 the Guardian Media Group (GMG) sold its last remaining stake in Autotrader and the Guardian reported the sale proceeds, coupled with GMG’s existing cash and investment fund…are expected to provide financial support for the Guardian, Observer and theguardian.com website for at least 30 years’. Alan Rusbridger himself wrote ‘Let’s call the eventual endowment approaching £1 billion in rough terms—give or take’. 

I took this up in our conversation;

SP At the time did you think a billion pounds would be enough?

AR ‘No idea…none of us had any idea, must be lots of people in this room who work in the media who still have no idea, it was impossible to say’.

In May 2015 he signed off as Editor of-in-Chief of the Guardian. He writes in his book ‘Vine (Kath Viner the new Editor) and Pemsel (David Pemsel the new Chief Executive of GMG) had the safety net of more money in the bank than any Guardian editor of business manager in history could have dreamed of’. 

It had been suggested that he should become the Chairman of the Scott Trust but it was agreed that  he would not take over as immediately. He would take up his post in Oxford at Lady Margaret Hall, which would allow Kath Viner a year to establish herself. He would then return as Chair of the Scott Trust in September 2016, supervising his successor.

By March 2016 Facebook and Google had completed eating the first course of everybody else’s lunch, Guardian Media Group (GMG) was burning cash at the rate of £72 million a year, and at that burn rate it was estimated that the endowment that was meant to last at least 30 years might last for five or six. 100 jobs were earmarked to be cut from the GMG editorial workforce and 150 from commercial.

The New York Times wrote of this period; ‘Support for Mr Rusbridger suddenly shifted as he was cast as a negligent manager who had saddled the paper with a slew of problems’.

I asked him ‘Was that fair?

‘Well I am sure it looked like that at the time. Where we are today, we had a strategy agreed by all the boards about five years ago, it is basically the same strategy today. It was to invest in journalism, to be international, to remain open, not to have a pay wall, and I had set up this membership  scheme which was the idea of trying to go to readers and ask them -on a kind of NPR model -in order to pay for this and keep it open…That strategy hasn’t changed. I read now that the Guardian is going to break even this year and there is still a billion pounds in the bank. So I think today that it doesn’t quite look like such a rubbish strategy but there was a frightening point I concede. The year I left I think they were anticipating a hundred million in digital revenues which we wouldn’t have got had we not had the foresight to invest in digital and that money fell short by 20 million, money just didn’t come in. So I can see that that was a frightening time’.

The great irony about this period is that during the phone-hacking saga there had been threats to Rusbridger from the tabloid media but the real damage to his reputation now came from leaks from inside his own old newspaper plus articles in places like the FT and from people like former Guardian contributor Michael Wollf, later of ‘Fire and Fury’ fame, who wrote- amongst other things- that his former Editor  had ‘no enthusiasm for Americans, all of whom you seemed to regard as either hopeless children or hapless vulgarians’.

Kath Viner who had not been Rusbridger’s preference for his successor as Editor-in-Chief, went to see him and asked him not to take up the the chair of the Scott Trust that autumn. Rusbridger would later announce he would not take up the post because Kath and David (Pemsel) clearly believe they would like to plot a route into the future with a new chair and I understand their reasoning.’ But I put it to him that after Kath Viner asked him to stand down it took a long time for him to agree.

AR Well it was a curious period and I’ve spoken to people about it since, we’re all friends, as I say I can see that it seemed frightening. Kath and David were both new in their jobs and the thing that you mention about not being in charge of your successor, I completely get that, so I understand it. I  mean I haven’t even written about this in the book because life has moved on and it’s all fine .

SP I think one reviewer called it ‘a diplomatic omission’.

AR I didn’t set out to write that kind of memoir. Thinking about it today, as I said, the strategy has not changed, it’s the same strategy, everything is about to break even and there’s still a billion pounds in the bank so I hope people are generous enough to think that actually maybe in a world in which everything does go up and down and anybody who works in any kind of media company except for the BBC-that was a cheap dig but the BBC does have a reasonably stable funding model. But if you are reliant on the kind of funding models that anybody out there has to rely on, then you will have good years and bad years….In these reviews they all say he was a hopeless business manager but the important bit is that they all say that the Guardian was brilliant under his editorship and that to me is the most important thing.

During the Q and A with the audience Rusbridger was asked if there had ever been deep divisions inside the Guardian about whether or not to put up a pay wall. He said there hadn’t, there had never been any pressure from the board to do that. ‘It wasn’t that here was this pampered editor trying to do this hopelessly uncommercial thing’. He pointed out ‘now, don’t take my word for it, it is on the public record, the Guardian is saying ‘we can make the sums work’ so I think in this world you need a bit more patience’.

I then summed up:

SP It sounds as if these decisions may have been made in confusion and with an inability to predict the future but actually it sounds as if you feel vindicated by the way it has turned out?

AR ‘I do,yeah… By the way that’s not to decry the work that Katherine and David have done, they’ve taken some tough decisions and they have done sone restructuring. 

In his book Rusbridger writes that Viner had ‘a tough introduction to the life of editing’ and that ‘it was clear that severe belt-tightening was going to be needed -and was doubtless overdue’.

Two footnotes: 

The first concerns the footnotes to the book. Rusbridger uses these to put on record some points about David Pemsel’s time in the marketing and commercial departments before he became CEO which I can only decode as meaning this was the man who made the digital advertising forecasts, this was the man who said we were ‘financially secure’.

The other concerns the Observer newspaper. On page 32 Rusbridger writes of the paper’s ‘distinguished history’ but that’s the only time in the book where he says anything remotely positive about the Observer. Much more common are references such as ‘a modest investment of £200,000 in digital was dwarfed by an additional £6 million cash injection into the Observer’ and ‘The Observer was losing £7 for every pound lost on the Guardian or its website’.

Ofcom’s dilemma over Putin, RT and the Salisbury poisonings

This article appears in the July/August edition of the Royal Television Society magazine ‘Television’.

A newly appointed boss is addressing journalists gathered in the newsroom. They only know him as an outspoken TV presenter with strong links to their government. He tells them: ‘the time of detached, unbiased journalism is over. Objectivity is a myth forced upon us. Editorial policy will be based on the love of our country’.

When a journalist in his audience tries to differentiate between ‘country’ and ‘government’, his new boss tells him with more than a hint of menace : ‘Let me give you some advice. If you are planning any subversive activities I can tell you now that goes right against my plan’.

Such is the state of the world that you can imagine this happening in many countries, including, extraordinarily, the USA. The least surprising explanation is that this scene was made in Moscow, shot by a journalist on his phone in 2013 and now part of a documentary ‘Our New President’ which had its UK premiere at the Sheffield Doc/Fest this year.

Dmitry Kiselyov took up his new role when Vladimir Putin merged the Kremlin’s news agency and radio station into a company called Rossiya Segodnya, which translates as ‘Russia Today’. Its sister news organisation is the other Russia Today, the TV news channel now known as ‘RT’, and they share an editor-in-chief, Margarita Simonyan.

So what does a British regulator make of a TV channel which transmits across the UK being openly owned by the same state that, according to the British Prime Minister, poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury. And how does ‘objectivity is a myth’ fit with the British requirement for ‘due impartiality and due accuracy’. The answers, based on the past few months, are that these are particularly difficult areas for Ofcom to navigate.

On 13th March when Theresa May gave Vladimir Putin until midnight to explain how the former spy was poisoned, Ofcom said ‘should the UK investigating authorities determine that there was an unlawful use of force by the Russian State against the UK, we would consider this relevant to our ongoing duty to be satisfied that RT is fit and proper’ to hold its Ofcom broadcasting licence. The UK Government did subsequently decide that there was ‘an unlawful use of force’ by Russia but a month later Ofcom had gone decidedly cool on linking a state’s actions with its ownership of an Ofcom licence .

‘It would be inappropriate for Ofcom always to place decisive weight’ on any act which a  state committed. It was ‘not possible or appropriate for us to seek to reach an independent determination on the events in Salisbury’. Instead Ofcom preferred to consider RT’s ‘broadcasting conduct’, was ‘intensively’ monitoring RT’s output and as it happened seven new investigations into due impartiality were ready to begin. ‘Since the events in Salisbury we have observed a significant increase in the number of programmes on the RT service that warrant investigation’, said Ofcom.  Another three investigations were started the next month, making a total of eleven standards cases if you include one started last year about the use on air of allegedly fake tweets. This case has been found too be a breach of Ofcom’s code.

What Ofcom has done about Salisbury is to get out of the row about who did what to whom and focus instead on what RT broadcast about it. The Ofcom statement had one particularly curious line about TV Novosti, the Russian Federation-owned company which holds RT’s licence; ‘Until recently, TV Novosti’s overall compliance record had not been materially out of line with other broadcasters’. My own examination of the available data on cases of due impartiality, due accuracy and related offences shows that RT had ten breaches recorded against it since 2010, more than twice as many as any other broadcaster. Quite why Ofcom would frame the comparison with other broadcasters on ‘overall compliance’, including adherence to non-editorial regulation such as advertising minutes, is unclear. Its own figures show that ‘the majority of the breaches, and both of the more serious breaches, were in programming relating to Russia’s foreign policy and related to the requirement for due impartiality. The breaches related to programmes about Libya (2011, 2012), Syria (2012, 2013 and 2014), Ukraine (2014), Turkey (2016) and NATO (2016)’.

The regulatory requirement goes back to the 1954 Television Act which set up ITV. Section 3 (c) tasked the then regulator, the ITA, with ensuring that ‘any news given in the programmes (in whatever form) is presented with due accuracy and impartiality’. When asked what due impartiality meant, the Government of the day replied that it was whatever the regulator deemed it to be. The rule was later extended to the BBC  and Channel Four. Downing Street papers released in 2016 show that back in 1990 the Prime Minister’s Political Secretary, John Whittingdale, told Margaret Thatcher that they had ‘consistently abused’ the impartiality requirements. 

As it has turned out the broadcasters who have found ‘due impartiality’ a useful wedge are those from outside the UK, such as Fox News and RT, bringing a very particular point of view into the country. 

The limitations and qualifications which Ofcom has to take into account when enforcing ‘due impartiality’ were listed by the Competition and Markets Authority in the context of its review of the proposed acquisition of Sky by 21st Century Fox. The CMA concluded that  ‘broadcasters are, to some extent, able to adapt their own approach to the presentation of news and current affairs more generally’.

The considerations which create this situation include recognising the importance of freedom of expression, taking account of the context of the broadcast and ‘the expectation of the audience’. As the Ofcom executive responsible for enforcing impartiality for two and a half years I was sometimes heard to mutter that ‘audience expectation’ was another way of saying  ‘what else would viewers expect from a right-wing American TV station or one owned by the Kremlin’.

Ofcom says it will make the outcome of its investigations public as soon as possible. The process which the RT cases are going through is carefully observed by Ofcom’s legal team, led by the redoubtable General Counsel, Polly Weitzman, who has been at Ofcom since its creation. If breaches are recorded against RT/Novosti the Ofcom lawyers will highlight the importance of precedent and past performance in determining if a sanction is appropriate and what that sanction should be. 

In 2012 Ofcom revoked the licence of the Iranian news channel Press TV which as a result was no longer able to broadcast in the UK. The state-funded broadcaster’s English language service had breached several rules over editorial control and had refused to pay a fine. It seemed that Tehran, which claimed “a clear example of censorship” by ‘the media arm of the Royal Family’, rather enjoyed the fight and continued distributing its output online. The broadcasting battles between Britain and Iran continue to this day with the BBC World recently deploring Tehran’s apparent “targeted attack” on BBC Persian staff by freezing their assets.

Could it just be that in 2018 that it might suit RT’s owners in Moscow to be able to accuse Britain of censorship and retaliate in some way against the BBC. Which brings us back to the sayings of Kremlin news boss Dmitry Kiselyov. When in 2016 the BBC’s Moscow Correspondent Steve Rosenberg asked Kiselyov if he was the Kremlin’s chief propagandist he replied ‘If I make propaganda, then you make it too. But if you’re not doing propaganda, if you’re just doing your job, that applies to me too. We’re doing the same thing, we’re colleagues’.

So if ‘tit-for-tat’ or ‘colleague for colleague’ would be the likely retaliation for any Ofcom sanction which directly impacts on RT’s transmissions, perhaps a large fine would be the most appropriate outcome in all the circumstances. 

London’s top spy recruiter for the KGB deserves a bigger place in espionage history.

Next month a documentary is to be shown in London about a little-known woman who deserves a much bigger place in espionage history. Quite simply she started the process that led to the creation of the ‘Cambridge Spies’ and tried to do the same with former Oxford students too. I’m particularly interested to see ‘Tracking Edith’ at the Barbican Cinema on 28th July because for the past two years I’ve been tracking Edith too, her story is the centrepiece of a guided walk I give each month called ‘The Hampstead Spies’.

Edith Tudor-Hart was her married name, she was born Edith Suschitzky in Austria in 1908. The documentary was made by Peter Stephan Jungk, and the billing says that as he ‘learns more about his aunt and her work, his film demands the question: why is she not recognised alongside Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five as one of the spies that changed the world?’. Good question.

The answer partly lies in the way the British security service  drip feeds its files into history. Each autumn  MI5 releases to the National Archives a few more of its previously secret files on ‘Soviet intelligence agents and suspected agents..and suspected communist and Russian sympathisers’. Some of the big books in the world of espionage literature were written long before MI5 released in 2015 their file into ‘Edith Tudor-Hart,aliases Suschitsky,White,Betty Grey,codename Edith’.

One by-product of each release is that I put a few more red stars on my map of the old Borough of Hampstead. Each star denotes an address which has appeared in an MI5 file. I developed this addictive hobby during my research for a biography of Guy Burgess which I wrote in 2015 with Jeff Hulbert. Burgess never lived in Hampstead-he was more of a West End chap himself- but it seemed from the MI5 and Foreign Office files that just about everybody else involved in his recruitment to the KGB did. One had lived in a house just across the road from where I’d once had a flat.

In the 1930s many political and religious refugees from Nazi Germany and Austria headed for North-West London, traditionally a home of left-wing emigres since Marx and Engels stayed there and Lenin and Stalin briefly visited. Hampstead had what one resident called ‘shabby genteel Victorian streets’ where, according to official records, ‘the alien population had increased to almost 24,000’ by 1941.The Communist Party members amongst them were often the ‘scruffy lot’, Saturday mornings would be spent selling the Daily Worker on a street corner, Sundays at the Cosmo restaurant in Finchley Road with other refugees from ‘Mitteleuropa’. 

The few amongst them who actively recruited for Soviet intelligence have a comparatively modest place in the literature of Soviet espionage in Britain, certainly compared to those they signed up, spies like Kim Philby who lived in Hampstead pre and post recruitment. But more details are becoming known about them, either by an MI5 release or by their families looking back into their own archives.

In 1930s and 1940s Hampstead there were two emigre communities -one German, one Austrian -who saw it as their duty to continue the fight against fascism and to link up with like-minded Britons. Those refugees who decided that helping Soviet intelligence was a necessary and justifiable tactic against fascism chose to work with separate parts of what later became known as the KGB. The German Communists in Hampstead worked mostly with the Soviet military’s foreign intelligence agency, the GRU. Their greatest success was recruiting a key spy within the Anglo-American-Canadian ‘Manhattan’ research into nuclear weapons. The Austrian Communists tended to sign up with Stalin’s enforcers, the NKVD. They helped set up the biggest known network inside the British establishment, the so-called Cambridge spies and also tried to create one  at Oxford.

More than half a century on we know more about the origins of this particular NKVD enterprise from research done for his film by Jungk, the son of the cousin of the woman at the heart of it. Using family sources Jungk has traced the starting point back to a bookshop in Vienna in the mid-1920s where the owner’s teenage daughter was helping out. A man walked in and asked for a book by the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich whose views on sex were so controversial that this was one of the few shops to stock it. 17 year old shop assistant Edith Suschitzky was interested in the book and therefore in the kind of man who would ask for it. His name was Arnold Deutsch, Jewish like her but four years older, originally from Slovakia, strong in physique and thick in hair.

For both of them Communist politics were a natural fit with sexual liberation. According to the family sources he invited her to a lecture on sexual politics, they walked in the park, swam naked at night in the Alte Donau and Edith’s first love affair was underway. She told him ‘I have chosen you Arnold’ even though she knew he was promised to somebody else. 

Edith and Arnold’s relationship was a long-term but stop-start one punctuated by his doctoral thesis, his marriage to a fellow Comintern courier, his subsequent training in Moscow as an agent, and Edith’s own induction into Soviet intelligence. By 1934 they were both agents living in London but married to other people. Arnold’s cover was researching psychology at London University, Edith was a photographer with a studio in the Belsize Park area of Hampstead. By a remarkable coincidence or a piece of excellent NKVD organisation, her entry into Britain from Austria had been eased by her marriage to a British communist Alex Tudor-Hart to become Mrs Edith Tudor-Hart while another Austrian Jewish communist, Litzi Friedman, got entry after meeting and marrying in Vienna a British communist to become Mrs Kim Philby. To complete the symmetry  Edith and Litzi knew each other from Vienna and Alex and Kim were both Communist graduates from Cambridge who knew Maurice Dobb. He was the Cambridge don who set Philby on the road to Vienna in 1933 to see for himself the class war in action. The Austrian left were fighting on the streets to try to take power. The right, encouraged by the rise of fascism across Europe, wanted to destroy them.

Back in London after the struggle was lost the Tudor-Harts and the Philbys lived in different parts of the Borough of Hampstead and met socially. It was perhaps inevitable that Edith would soon have, in Philby’s words, ‘a proposition to make which might vitally affect my future’. They set off together from Hampstead so that Edith could introduce him to a man ‘of decisive importance’.  When they reached a bench by the boating pond in Regents Park a man who was waiting there stood up to welcome them. Edith said ‘Here we are, on the dot’ and left them to it.

Which is how Kim Philby met Edith’s fellow agent and by now former lover, Arnold Deutsch. The recruiter flattered Philby into Soviet intelligence and did the same to friends Philby introduced from his Cambridge University days such as future Foreign Office diplomats Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess. How much more exciting, Deutsch promised them, to join this exclusive club rather than be a mere Communist Party member. In fact Deutsch told them that joining the party was the very last thing they should think of doing.

Edith was also interested in somebody ‘more promising’ than Philby. She demanded ‘we must make haste’ with the recruitment of Anthony Blunt, although he later claimed they never actually met. Edith had built her reputation as a photographer documenting working-class life in Britain but by 1940 the studio business was in trouble, she was divorced from Alex, had a severely autistic son Tommy to bring up and, according to the latest family research, received no remuneration for her espionage. She pleaded for help to Jack Pritchard, creator of the nearby Isokon block of flats where the communal living spaces created an intellectual meeting-place in North London. Edith had photographed the opening of the building and it had been her recommendation that led to Arnold Deutsch and his wife moving in. She wrote to Pritchard : ‘I am now in a difficult situation and urgently need a job’. He was not encouraging.

Meanwhile her protege Kim Philby was moving up the ranks of British intelligence and saw updates on MI5’s activities, some of them about his old patch. The Security Service thought he might be interested to see a list of all suspected Austrian communists in London. He certainly would  because he could check if his own wife was on it. Amazingly she wasn’t.

When Burgess and Maclean defected to Moscow in 1950 it was the beginning of the end for Edith’s ring. Philby came under suspicion and he too made a run for the Soviet Union. MI5 had always been on Edith’s case, watching her home in the 1930s, getting her to admit in 1947 that ‘she  used to work for the Russian Intelligence in Austria and Italy in 1932-3’ but nothing that was a crime in the UK. With the collapse of the ‘Cambridge Five’ (Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross were questioned but never charged) MI5 were back again and it was in 1964 that Blunt told them ‘he had always believed it was Tudor-Hart who first recruited Kim Philby’ and that she was probably ‘the grand-mother of us all’. Edith had a nervous breakdown, tried her luck running an antiques business in Portobello Road and Brighton and died from cancer in 1973.

Details of the documentary ‘Tracking Edith’,including a trailer are here  and there’s more about The Hampstead Spies’ guided walk here . If it’s not me doing the walk it will be my colleague and co-author Jeff Hulbert. Hope to see you there sometime.