Battle for the soul of the BBC

Mark Byford is trying to steady the corporation after Lord Hutton's damning verdict. But many of the BBC's news staff have deep misgivings about his conduct. Tim Luckhurst reports
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The Independent Online

Journalists in BBC network news have a mission. They want to stop Mark Byford becoming director general. The acting DG, who took over without warning in the supercharged environment created by Greg Dyke's resignation, is described by critics as "a hick from the provinces who has never worked in serious news".

Admirers who point out that Byford was a serious contender for the top job before Dyke was appointed are in a small minority in this most influential department of the BBC empire. Byford gets little credit for his achievements in BBC regional broadcasting or at the World Service. One source says: "There is no confidence in Byford. He has misjudged the deep feelings among staff." Another adds: "There is huge scepticism about Mark. People are scared that he is leading a witch-hunt."

This "witch-hunt" is the internal inquiry into Andrew Gilligan's notorious Today programme broadcast. Management sources insist that it won't result in more sackings, and is simply designed to ensure that mistakes aren't repeated.

But BBC journalists do not believe them. One says: "Everybody feels this procedure should not be happening. It is grotesquely unfair to those involved. If they criticise any of the staff under investigation, or move them to other jobs, they will have picked the biggest fight ever. I don't know anyone who would want to work for the BBC if that happened. We are involved in a fight for the soul of BBC News."

That anger isn't unusual. From senior news executives to lowly producers, Mark Byford is considered too cautious to defend the BBC's journalism against political hostility. "He is not known, and what he has been seen to do and heard to say has not gone down well," says a source. Even Byford's friends criticise his conduct. A journalist who worked closely with him at the World Service says: "He did not make a great start. Mark is not a great communicator at the best of times, but he really put his foot in it by telling Feedback that it is not the BBC's job to break exclusives."

That is a reference to Byford's interview on Radio 4 last month, in which he said: "The notion of 'exclusive here, exclusive there, exclusive everywhere' is not appropriate for the BBC." Journalists say that ethos is making itself felt in every news department. "Caution is official policy," says a TV news producer. "Everything we do has to go through Editorial Policy [the department responsible for checking controversial stories]. They are no longer issuing guidelines, they are issuing instructions. They were always over-cautious, and in the past we ignored them. Now they can tell you what to do." Another journalist says: "This is not an inspiring time. We needed to be led out of crisis. Instead, we have a docile civil servant."

Broadcasters are convinced that the BBC's critics feel empowered to complain about the output at will. "There's a feeling now that the BBC is a softer target than it was, having been softened up," says one.

Some say this post-Hutton caution has created specific examples of self-censorship at the BBC. At least one investigative piece has been sent in advance to the subjects of the story so that they can comment on possible inaccuracies before broadcast. Presenters are warned not to voice personal opinions, and swear words that would have been broadcast in the past are now edited out. Executive producers are said to use the phrase "post-Hutton", meaning to continually err on the side of caution.

Some cite the corporation's refusal to interview Martin Ingram, co-author of the book Stakeknife about a British Army spy who infiltrated the top ranks of the IRA. But Ingram is subject to a Ministry of Defence injunction preventing him from speaking about his allegations, and all British media have declined to interview him.

Last week Don Hale, the Matlock Mercury editor who campaigned for the release of Stephen Downing, protested that the BBC had made heavy cuts to its drama about this case to avoid rocking the boat in the aftermath of Hutton.

But one BBC journalist says: "You don't need edicts or self-censorship when the Today programme is forced to run a one minute, 52-second apology over something it should never have been required to apologise for. There is an atmosphere in this place. We know what [the acting chairman] Richard Ryder's view of journalism is. The assumption now is that Ryder is telling Byford what to do, and Byford is just doing it. The atmosphere between journalists and management is far worse than before."

Executives confirm that a mood of paranoia is detectable. They insist there have been no specific cases of censorship, but admit meetings have been held to discuss caution and morale. One insider says: "There are lots of seminars on editorial independence, and a lot of hand-wringing."

Stephen Whittle, the BBC's controller of editorial policy, told a meeting at White City in London last month that journalists must keep details of all their conversations with contacts. "I cannot tell you how valuable it is to have a proper paper trail." Richard Sambrook, the director of news, acknowledged that questions were being asked about whether the BBC was "losing its nerve... There has been much speculation about whether we will continue to do bold and brave journalism. Of course we will."

But Michael Crick, the Newsnight investigative reporter, warned in a speech at the Royal Television Society last week that BBC journalism risks being gripped by "paralysis". Crick said: "You will find in the years ahead that people want an extra opinion, an outside lawyer, an extra source. It will make the whole climate of doing this kind of work harder." Some insiders believe this has already happened. A radio reporter says: "Everybody is pretty bloody bruised, and when you are bruised you don't go out and look for someone else to hit you."

Many journalists blame Byford for all of this. Even friends who worked with him in his previous BBC roles concede that he has limited experience in the firing line. "It is true that Mark has not had to face Alastair Campbell. The World Service does not break exclusives. Local journalism rarely alarms government."

Jane McIntyre, a producer on BBC Radio Shropshire, wrote to the corporation's magazine Ariel to say that local journalists were also worried about the antipathy towards exclusives. "Many of us still regard the local newspaper as the rival, not the source," she wrote. "Suggesting that we don't always need to be first with the news is like sending Beckham on to the pitch and telling him not to bother with the goals."

John Simpson, the BBC's World Affairs editor, e-mailed Lord Ryder to complain about the post-Hutton BBC. "Am I worried about the current situation? The answer is yes. Do I think more people should be punished? The answer is no," he said.

Paralysis and confusion are perhaps not universal. One presenter was adamant that business returned to normal within days of Dyke's departure, and that executives were not "sitting on my shoulder".

Journalists at the sharp end of the BBC - such as the investigative reporter John Ware and the Panorama editor Mike Robinson - are trusted not to bow to pressure. Some challenging commissions have been announced, including a series of undercover investigations into public-sector organisations. And the BBC's director of factual and learning, John Willis, said the institution would continue to produce "robust and vigorous" programmes and that controversial investigations remained "a priority".

The big picture is that the BBC is divided over Mark Byford. At the World Service, he is regarded as someone who grew from an inauspicious start to become a widely respected leader. Many in regional broadcasting are similarly enthusiastic. "Quite a few people in the nations and regions see Byford as a champion," says one source. "There is a view that the arrogant big-noises in network news got the BBC into trouble, and they want a new leader who will let them do it again. Mark respects the local journalists who toil away without generating that sort of controversy. For a lot of our viewers and listeners, that sort of work matters more than attacking government."

Back at Television Centre, another source describes that view as "depressing drivel" and insists that "Byford can't even get the mundane things right. His beloved nations and regions lost the rights to Scottish Premier League football to a pay-per-view broadcaster [Setanta], and ITV has got the Boat Race. If that's what his attention to the things that matter amounts to, not many people are going to be impressed."

It is an indication of the impact Hutton has had on BBC journalism that many reporters and producers seem to have forgotten the recent past. People who derided Dyke's "cut the crap" approach and resented being told to "think positive" now look back fondly, although one senior reporter says: "Dyke didn't understand journalists and why they cost all that money."

Byford is the victim of a delusion that all was perfect until Hutton reported. But, in the immediate aftermath of Dyke's resignation, Byford faced a huge challenge to repair morale and focus journalists' attention on the future. As camps are forming in support of potential candidates for director general, the verdict in news is that he has failed.

Byford's time at network news is limited to a nine-month spell in charge of the home news desk in 1988-89. By contrast, Mark Thompson, the Channel 4 chief executive and a rival candidate for DG, is seen as possessing an "impeccable" news background, having previously been in charge of Panorama and the Nine O'Clock News.

Few journalists at Television Centre are willing to mount a determined defence of Byford. One who described himself as an ally says: "He has not made a good start. He looked shocked and traumatised. I think he was shocked and traumatised. Everyone knows Mark is ambitious, but perhaps the chance to become DG came at the wrong time." Another - who would not criticise Mark Byford directly - says: "All this is not imaginary. There is scepticism about Mark in news. News badly needs to be convinced about him."