Fear and loathing
The BBC's post-Hutton investigation into its editorial processes has provoked an outpouring of hostility from staff who claim that their legal rights are being ignored
Tuesday 30 March 2004
The BBC objects to any description of the corporation's post-Hutton internal disciplinary inquiry as a "star chamber". It also resents the phrases "kangaroo court" and "witch hunt". The difficulty is that these terms are all used by staff involved in the process. Few BBC journalists accept the legitimacy of the disciplinary hearings that have dragged figures, including the director of news Richard Sambrook, the deputy director Mark Damazer, the head of Radio News Stephen Mitchell, and the
Today programme editor Kevin Marsh, into formal interviews with the BBC director of policy, Caroline Thomson, and the director of personnel, Stephen Dando.
The BBC objects to any description of the corporation's post-Hutton internal disciplinary inquiry as a "star chamber". It also resents the phrases "kangaroo court" and "witch hunt". The difficulty is that these terms are all used by staff involved in the process. Few BBC journalists accept the legitimacy of the disciplinary hearings that have dragged figures, including the director of news Richard Sambrook, the deputy director Mark Damazer, the head of Radio News Stephen Mitchell, and the Today programme editor Kevin Marsh, into formal interviews with the BBC director of policy, Caroline Thomson, and the director of personnel, Stephen Dando.
At Television Centre, the latest term of abuse adopted to condemn what is generally perceived as a divisive process is "Guantanamo Bay". Journalists use it because they say that the BBC refuses to tell those involved what the accusations against them are. A source explains: "Initially they would not even admit to the people under investigation that the thing was being run under the formal disciplinary procedure. Then each of them received a letter saying that it was. But the disciplinary procedure requires formal accusations. It can't just be a general round of questioning. Several of the accused have asked Thomson and Dando to cut to the chase and tell them what they are alleged to have done wrong. But the management side refuses to do that."
The rooms in which the interviews have been conducted are on the second and third floors of Broadcasting House. They have an air of desolation about them because the personnel department to which they belong is in the process of moving to Television Centre. One participant describes heaps of files and boxes standing in offices and corridors. "It is a bit grim and neglected, like tumbleweed in a penny Western."
Interviews have been held in inward-facing offices with windows on to internal corridors. Each contains a single desk at which the "prosecution" team of Thomson and Dando sit on one side and the interviewee, accompanied by what BBC insiders call a "prisoner's friend", sits on the other. Evidence is not being electronically recorded. One interviewee says: "It might be better if they were taping us. The notes coming back are full of mistakes and there seems to be no attempt to check them."
Sources say that the early rounds of interviews were non-confrontational, but that several interviewees, including Mark Damazer and Stephen Mitchell, have been summoned back for what are described as "hostile interviews". Not all of those summoned are co-operating fully. One employee was incensed when demands to know what he was deemed to have done wrong were met by "a patronising mantra about 'if anything isn't clear we can do it again'."
Some journalists remain adamant that the process was initiated by BBC governors anxious to make peace with politicians. BBC News executives regard the inquiry as a self-inflicted wound. One says: "After the trauma of Hutton, they shouldn't have allowed this to happen. It is a witch hunt and it has blown up in their faces. Now the best they can hope for is that they can end it without people such as John Humphrys and John Simpson resigning."
Others allege that the procedure is flawed because Caroline Thomson has conflicts of interest that should disbar her from presiding over it. These are that she is married to the Prime Minister's political adviser, Roger Liddle, and that she was actively involved in the BBC's response to the Hutton inquiry. Neither Thomson nor Dando is able to respond to these allegations or to the general tone of hostility towards their inquiry from journalists in BBC News. They are both bound by the requirements of confidentiality imposed by the BBC's disciplinary procedures, but a BBC spokesman spoke on their behalf. He explains: "I accept that there are people who disagree with this process. But it is a standard procedure, accepted by the trade unions. It is the accepted BBC procedure for dealing with questions relating to a person's conduct in their job. It was not, as has been alleged, initiated by Mark Byford [acting director general] or Richard Ryder [acting chairman]. Mark Byford could have stopped it, but he did not instigate it. He was not acting director general when this process began. Gavyn Davies was still chairman when this was launched."
Regarding Thomson's alleged conflicts of interest, the spokesman says: "These issues were discussed before Caroline was appointed. She was involved at the start of the Hutton process and again at the end, but she did not play a major role. The BBC is aware of who her husband is. Nobody has ever suggested that Caroline is not a woman of the highest integrity. We do not believe that she is disqualified. We believe she is ideally suited to doing this fairly and thoroughly. She is an experienced journalist. She is impeccably qualified."
Other sources say that the hostility from BBC journalists is understood throughout the corporation, but not shared outside the news department. They say that other BBC staff would be incensed if the journalists involved in the decision to broadcast Andrew Gilligan's now infamous report were not subjected to disciplinary sanctions. Some say that Lord Hutton exposed real flaws in BBC journalism and editorial procedures. They believe the BBC is obliged to subject its journalists to rigorous scrutiny. Previous editorial errors have resulted in formal disciplinary hearings. Supporters of BBC management say that it would be perverse if the Gilligan episode were exempted from normal procedures simply because Lord Hutton's report has already had major repercussions. One says: "News is determined to be let off the hook. But we lost a very popular DG because of their mistakes. They deserve what is happening."
The lingering problem is that the internal procedure has become so controversial that it is hard to imagine how it can deliver verdicts that will be generally accepted. One participant says: "The suspicion is that they will do everything in their power to block our careers without doing anything to make the presenters walk out. They can't hurt Richard Sambrook because he offered his resignation as soon as Hutton reported. It will be a fudge, and it has not been worth prolonging the agony of Hutton for that."
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