Can the BBC ever recover its reputation?
It's about a year ago that I was asked by Renmin University to lecture to their media students about the BBC's independence, and why the BBC enjoys such an enviable reputation amongst broadcasters around the world. Having worked in the BBC for 18 years, as well as a number of other news organizations, I was delighted to accept the invitation and ended up talking for nearly four hours to a room packed with students whose enthusiasm was infectious from the very start.
After what has been going on in the BBC in recent weeks, I have to wonder if I would be prepared to do the same again. Its flagship news program, Newsnight, made not one, but two serious failures of judgment which resulted in the resignation of the corporation's director-general after just 54 days in the job, together with a number of other top BBC executives. The news has shocked the broadcasting community and engulfed the BBC in a crisis from which some predict it may never recover.
Newsnight had made a decision last December to pull an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by Sir Jimmy Savile, a deceased former BBC presenter; and this month, it broadcast a report which falsely linked a former Conservative Party treasurer to alleged child abuse at children's homes in Wales.
The BBC, of course, has been widely criticized throughout its entire history by both sides of the political divide for being too left wing, or for being too right wing; for giving credibility to enemies of Britain in times of war and for not taking sides where "Britain was obviously in the right". But it is precisely because it never takes sides in a dispute and attempts to give both sides of every argument that it has for so long earned its enviable reputation around the world.
I remember having long and passionate debates with broadcasters from Saudi Arabia's KSA 2 TV station when they had asked me to train their newsroom to improve their output. They found it difficult to understand that whenever they added disparaging remarks about Israel, for instance, in their news bulletins, they would, I argued, lose the confidence of their viewers that their entire output was in some way biased – and not just stories concerning Israel itself.
In this latest BBC crisis, the wounds were self inflicted by shoddy journalism – and the mistakes of a few have tarnished the reputations of the thousands of good and professional journalists that have worked for the BBC at one time or another in their careers.
A colleague of mine was talking to me over dinner this week. It was exactly the same with the banking industry, he said, when the Royal Bank of Scotland went through its crisis a couple of years back. A friend of his who is a Scottish banker working in the Middle East was told by a customer that he would have to take everything he now said with a pinch of salt, because this friend was both Scottish and worked for a large international banking group. The logic may well be flawed, but it's an unfortunate fact that this is how many people tend to think.
So, however remote from the "scene of the crime", industry professionals will still all get tarred with the same brush. It's no good for the 99.9% of professional BBC journalists saying these Newsnight failings had nothing to do with them. In the public's eye the damage has been done and trust in the BBC's output has been lost.
It is difficult to know if the BBC can ever claw its way back out of the hole in which it has landed itself. Once you lose your reputation it is extremely hard to recover lost ground. It doesn't matter that so much of the BBC's output is top class, better probably, than any other broadcaster in the world. Once your reputation is damaged as has happened now, people always have this nagging memory in the back of their minds.
But the fact is that the BBC's news output still retains a very high degree of professionalism; and what the BBC should be doing now is to carry on as before earning back for itself the reputation it had for so long for unbiased and professional reporting. That doesn't mean that it should not tackle difficult or contentious stories; but it should be more careful – much more careful – in their handling.
At the end of the day, we all make mistakes. The main thing now is for all involved in the Corporation's news output to learn from those mistakes and to move on. What is done is done and cannot be undone. Only by continuing in the best of the old traditions of the BBC can its former trust ever now have a chance of being re-earned.