Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Monday 24 May.
“Lord Dyson’s report makes shocking reading. It details not just an appalling failure to uphold basic journalistic standards but an unwillingness to investigate complaints and to discover the truth. That these failures occurred at our national broadcaster is an even greater source of shame. The new leadership at the BBC deserves credit for setting up an independent inquiry and for accepting its findings in full. However, the reputation of the BBC—its most precious asset—has been badly tarnished, and it is right that the BBC board and wider leadership now consider urgently how confidence and trust in the corporation can be restored.
It is not for the Government to interfere in editorial decisions, but it is the job of government to ensure that there is a strong and robust system of governance at the BBC with effective external oversight. It was to deliver that that we made fundamental changes when the BBC’s charter was renewed in 2015-16. Since then, the BBC Trust has been replaced by a more powerful board with an external regulator, Ofcom, responsible for overseeing the BBC’s content and being the ultimate adjudicator of complaints. We also made provision at that time for a mid-term review by the Government to ensure that the new governance arrangements were working effectively. That review is due next year but work on it will start now. In particular, we will wish to be satisfied that the failures that have been identified could not have occurred if the new governance arrangements had been in place. The BBC board has also announced today its own review, led by the senior independent director and two non-executive members, of the BBC’s editorial guidelines and standards committee. That review will examine editorial oversight, the robustness and independence of whistleblowing processes, and the wider culture within the BBC. It will take independent expert advice and will report by September.
In an era of fake news and disinformation, the need for public service broadcasting and trusted journalism has never been stronger. The BBC has been, and should be, a beacon setting standards to which others can aspire, but it has fallen short so badly and has damaged its reputation both here and across the world. The BBC now needs urgently to demonstrate that these failings have been addressed and that this can never happen again.”
My Lords, the blunt findings of the report by Lord Dyson make for deeply troubling reading, and I welcome the unequivocal apology by the director-general of the BBC and the review into editorial practices and culture. Is the Minister satisfied that the scope of the review will ensure that such a disgrace cannot happen again? Do the Government agree that veiled threats about the upcoming charter renewal exercise are unhelpful and that the focus really should be on building trust, accountability and service to the public, as we saw in the vital role played by the BBC during the pandemic?
It is obviously up to the board of the BBC to determine the scope of the review. I am sure the noble Baroness has seen the letter today from the chief executive of Ofcom about its work in this area. It is all part of an effort to rebuild trust in the BBC after the dreadful events revealed by the Dyson report.
My Lords, we welcome the fact that the Government agree that, in an era of fake news, public service broadcasting has never been more important. The Bashir story is truly shocking, but I worked as a journalist at the BBC for many years and know that the vast majority abide by the values and principles that make it such a respected institution at home and abroad. This is not a time, as the Secretary of State said, for knee-jerk reactions. While I wholeheartedly condemn these events, does the Minister not agree that they must not be used as an opportunity to undermine the BBC’s independence or the principles of universality that so importantly underpin it?
We absolutely agree—we want a strong and successful public broadcasting system, and that needs the BBC to be a central part of it. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made clear in his recent article in the Times, there will be no knee-jerk reaction.
My Lords, I welcome the comments made by the ministerial teams in both this House and the other place over the last day or so. I also welcome the announcement by the DCMS Select Committee that it will look at this matter. I therefore call on the BBC to clear the slate, get a move on and make absolutely clear where it admits responsibility, but commit for the future that it will publish the likes of the Balen report and make absolutely clear, when it has people commenting on news items, what their well-known political positions are.
My noble friend is absolutely right that the BBC needs urgently to demonstrate that the failings to which he refers have been addressed, that they can never happen again, and that trust is restored in a culture of transparency and accountability within the BBC.
I declare an interest as a former BBC governor. The problem of trust in the BBC today is not, at core, one of governance; it is one of inbreeding. Ofcom is not the solution, for it too has many former BBC employees on its committees. The chances of a complaint succeeding are about nil. The answer is oversight by a completely independent ombudsman with no links to the BBC. This is the pattern adopted for other professions, such as financial, legal and medical. Does the noble Baroness agree that, as long as problems and complaints are dealt with internally and by BBC people, there can be no perception of impartiality?
I do not completely agree with the noble Baroness: I think part of the role of good governance is to check that inbreeding is not happening within an organisation, and that the governance structure reinforces the culture necessary to deliver on the mission of the organisation. In relation to internal investigations, she will be aware that complaints can be made direct to Ofcom on issues of fairness and privacy.
My Lords, while I condemn Bashir’s deceitfulness and the subsequent cover-up, can the Minister reassure the House that the BBC board and director-general will be allowed to get on with the review they have announced without interference by the Government? Moreover, does she agree that any further steps to alter the governance or editorial oversight should be proportionate and not heavy-handed and, above all, should resist damaging the BBC’s independence and its contribution to soft power through output that is relied on and admired not just in the UK but around the world?
I absolutely agree: it is essential that the BBC can operate with editorial independence and integrity, and nothing we are doing will compromise that.
The BBC operates under a royal charter; does it not therefore have an obligation not to broadcast interviews with Diana, Princess of Wales, that can only undermine our monarchy? Secondly, Martin Bashir was found by the Dyson report to have actually been implicit in forging bank statements. Is this not criminal activity, and should he not face charges for this, as indeed should anybody further up the food chain at the BBC who knew of this activity and did not report it to the proper authorities?
My noble friend’s first question falls into the area of editorial independence, although I share the very real concerns he raises. On the forgery of the bank statements, as my right honourable friend the Minister for Media and Data set out, my understanding is that a request has gone to the Metropolitan Police to examine the evidence and reach a judgment on it.
I welcome the Government’s review of the BBC’s governance. However, contrary to the noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, I was concerned this morning that the director-general of the BBC said he had no intention of airing the Princess Diana interview ever again. I understand, given the shocking circumstances under which Martin Bashir obtained the interview, why he said that; however, the interview is a seminal part of the understanding of the history of this country in the 1990s. Does the Minister agree that to prohibit future airings of the interview is to censor our history and limit freedom of expression?
I can only repeat what I said earlier, which is that that appears to me to sit as an editorial decision for the BBC.
Does the Minister accept that now is an opportune time for the BBC to acknowledge the serious flaws within the system and to learn the lessons from the failures of the past, not only in the Bashir saga but in other unbalanced reporting of events? Is the mid-term review not an opportunity to have a radical change within the BBC? Are the Government determined to make any fundamental changes necessary?
The mid-term review is really a health check point that was built in to the charter review process to look at the effectiveness of governance and regulation, rather than the more widespread suggestions the noble Lord makes.
My Lords, while I agree with Mr Whittingdale’s comments in the other place, will the review reconsider my complaints about a fairly recent programme commemorating the Caernarvon investiture, with unsubstantiated allegations of the use of agents provocateur and fixing of the date of court hearings being defended by the noble Lord, Lord Hall, downwards on the grounds that it was the work of experienced journalists?
The noble and learned Lord raises another troubling example. All of these will be important to address if the BBC is to rebuild the trust we all wish it to have.
My Lords, I dealt with BBC News for many years and I regret to say that, despite being known—I hope—for straight dealing, I found it almost impossible to get an error corrected or the semblance of an apology from it. I encountered, I fear, a well-entrenched and regrettable defensiveness. Does my noble friend agree that this needs to change and that the BBC should appreciate that even it can learn from its mistakes?
My noble friend is right to question the culture of the BBC. We welcome the fact that the new chair and director-general are doing the same, as my noble friend says, in relation not just to some of the serious failings we have heard about in the Chamber today and in the Dyson report but to the day-to-day defensiveness in its dealings, which my noble friend referred to and which was also referenced in the letter from Ofcom.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked and answered.