Mistakes happen, even in great news organisations such as the BBC. If they are bad enough, heads will probably have to roll. But what matters much more than the bloodletting is that lessons should be learnt from what went wrong, so that the error is not repeated. In the case of the most recent Newsnight affair, there are three main conclusions to be drawn.
The first is that the BBC’s news is always going to be held, very properly, to a much higher standard than the work of its commercial rivals. The whole point of a public service broadcaster is that its editors can be relied on to exercise sound news judgment, and to deliver accurate and authoritative information. That does not mean that they shouldn’t seek to break exclusive stories, or to undertake investigative journalism. On the contrary, it’s in the public interest that the BBC should be using its vast resources to take on challenging projects that are beyond the reach of other news organisations. But this is by its nature difficult work, and must be managed with great care.
In the first place, there need to be clear rules about sourcing, about giving individuals named in the story the right to respond ahead of publication, and about the authority that is required to approve the broadcasting of contentious material. Such stories need to be checked and rechecked, and never rushed onto the air. Above all, senior editors have to trust the journalists that are involved in projects of this kind, and be confident that they share the organisation’s values. Among other things, this means that work like this should never be subcontracted to outsiders, as appears to have happened at least in part with the inaccurate Newsnight story.
The second lesson is that the whole ethos and mission of the BBC must be different from that of commercial broadcasters. Its journalists should not be attempting to compete with their very different range of news priorities, or to build audiences in any other way than through the sheer quality of their work. And editors must be reminded that quality reporting is not boring – as a whole bunch of talented BBC people from Nick Robinson in Westminster to Mark Mardell in Washington demonstrate every day.
The final lesson is that when trouble comes, as sooner or later it very probably will, the Director General’s job will always be on the line whether or not he or she is called editor in chief. It follows that the overriding priority of the job must be to protect and enhance the organisation’s reputation for quality journalism. Since one person can only take direct oversight of a tiny fraction of the BBC’s immense news output, the Director General must have a series of trusted lieutenants with direct responsibility for specific areas of coverage. It’s also necessary to have colleagues with a remit to monitor the social media, in order to help inform the overall news judgment.
A set of clearly understood rules is also required to make sure that the most sensitive material crosses the Director General’s desk in a timely fashion. The priorities would change as the news agenda moved on, but would always apply to stories which could potentially involve big legal liabilities, or which could have serious political consequences. The inaccurate Newsnight story, which broke all the rules of sound journalism, would have been caught on both these counts. The Director General simply cannot afford to be blind-sided as he was in this case.
Its public service broadcaster is an invaluable asset for the UK and the wider world, and must be cherished as such. The present furore will eventually die away, but when it does it’s vital that these three lessons should remain etched in the BBC’s corporate memory