For anybody who works for BBC News, or has worked for it, or simply trusts it and values it, Tony Hall’s words this week sounded encouraging. He said he wanted the BBC’s news and current affairs division to regain its confidence after the Jimmy Savile scandal and the libelling of Lord McAlpine. He then added – “I want to renew our commitment to investigative journalism.”
If only. The trouble with investigative journalism is that it takes a long time, it costs a lot, and sometimes it yields nothing. Hardly an inviting prospect for an editor under severe budget pressure.
The new boss of BBC news and current affairs, James Harding, put his priority rather differently, saying he wanted BBC journalists to “break more stories”. Again, if only. That has never been the BBC’s way. Where a newspaper editor might splash a story in the knowledge that, tomorrow, that front page will be keeping the evening’s fish supper warm, senior BBC news editors, weighed down by the responsibility that “the BBC must get it right”, will be far more cautious. That is nothing new. Nearly 40 years ago, as a cub reporter on a regional news programme, I got wind, through a very reliable source, of some imminent and potentially damaging industrial action. Breathlessly, I phoned the story through to the national news organiser in London, only to be told – “Can’t run it. The Press Association haven’t reported it.”
For most people, unconcerned with winning the “breaking news” race, that caution makes sense. For the majority, BBC News still stands for what is honest and honourable in news reporting. But it must stand up for itself. In his address this week, Tony Hall insisted – “I want BBC News to be alive to its critics, I don’t want BBC News to be cowed by them.” I worked with Tony Hall in the 80s when he was deputy editor of the re-launched Six O’Clock News. He was impressive then, and he still is. For the sake of BBC News, he must now provide the support that will encourage a new breed of more confident journalists and editors.