Jana Bennett: Crowngate - the real story

Jana Bennett, the most powerful woman in British television, survived the furore over the manipulation of film of the Queen, due to be broadcast in authentic form on BBC1 this evening. In her first interview since the affair, she tells Ian Burrell why it was not her fault
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The Independent Online

Up on the sixth floor of BBC Television Centre, Jana Bennett poses for her portrait shot with minimal fuss, accommodating the wishes of the photographer just as we now know Her Majesty did for Annie Liebovitz in an episode which, this evening on BBC1, will finally be screened as it actually happened.

Bennett, like the Queen, does not storm off but walks across a corridor to her spartan, white-walled office. The most powerful woman in British television, with creative and leadership responsibility for all the corporation's channels, has had the year of nightmares. She has seen the sullying of such virtuous BBC brands as Blue Peter and Comic Relief, tainted by the sin of viewer deceit, and she has had to implement the deepest of cuts on her staff. More, she has had to bid farewell to Peter Fincham, the controller of her flagship channel, who departed over the shambles that has become known as "Crowngate", an affair that shocked those within and without the corporation and prompted the author of an independent inquiry to castigate Bennett, 51, for her "lack of curiosity" in acting to limit the damage caused to the reputation of the BBC.

Yet as she sits down, it is soon clear that she is neither remorseful nor repentant. As far as "Crowngate" is concerned, the axe has fallen and justice has been done. It is time to move on, Bennett, the BBC's grandly-titled Director of Vision, insists.

The sequence at the centre of the affair, manipulated for a promotional film to show the Queen huffily stomping out of the photo-shoot, will form part of tonight's first episode of the newly-titled five-part series Monarchy: The Royal Family At Work. Bennett now describes it thus: "What I will say is that the photo shoot is completed and the whole shoot is from beginning to end done fully and professionally and obviously that's a very different story from the one that was regrettably originally edited. But this shows the thing, the exchange, properly and shows there's a mixture of quite a lot of good humour."

So "done fully", "professionally" and with elements of "good humour". Yet on the evening of 11 July, when news organisations were up and running with the storm-out story, Bennett was told by Fincham during a 20-minute telephone call that there was a problem but failed to grasp its potential impact. A draft statement prepared by the BBC, Buckingham Palace and the production company responsible for the distortion, RDF, was emailed to Bennett but she did not see it.

No correction was issued until the following day and even then Bennett appeared unaware of the extent of the deception, believing there merely to have been a "compression" of material.

In his report into the affair last month, Will Wyatt, himself a former senior BBC executive, wrote of Bennett that "given the information she did have, she displayed a lack of curiosity in not getting to the bottom of what exactly the BBC was apologising to the Queen for."

He added: "No one at any level in the Vision or Marketing Communications and Audiences department seemed to spot that a series with unprecedented access to the royal household had the potential to explode in the BBC's face."

Fincham's departure, as soon as the report was published, prompted headlines such as "BBC's top woman faces growing pressure to quit over 'Crowngate'" and "Critics calls for more heads in BBC 'Crowngate'". So did Bennett consider her position? "There wasn't ...the big discussion ...Peter Fincham took a view, took responsibility. He made those decisions and that was really the end of that. I think he took responsibility because he was BBC1 controller and saw this as something very much within his responsibilities. He was a fantastic colleague but that subject of me didn't come up."

So she didn't even contemplate the issue, even after those headlines? "Peter took his decision and took it very rapidly so it wasn't a material question." Clearly, Bennett felt that she had the backing of the director general Mark Thompson, a long-standing colleague. Nonetheless, she was sufficiently aware of the gravity of the matter not to consider Fincham's departure surprising. "I wasn't particularly surprised, no. Because, as I said, he saw that this was something very much in his orbit. This was a big launch and the events have been looked at in great detail by many different commentators but ...I don't think it was subject to lots of group discussion and I don't think such a decision would be anyway."

Bennett has brought in experienced producer Denys Blakeway to supervise the "specially-composed team" making the revised Monarchy. "They can look at any material they like but they have basically taken the rough cuts and are working to bring them to what you might call fine cuts," she says.

The Palace has been kept closely informed of progress of a film that was formerly called simply The Queen. "We have editorial control and are absolutely responsible for delivering this as a high-quality project, but we've made sure that they are aware of what we are doing because this has a bit of a history, obviously, and it is something we all want to be proud of. The whole point is to show not just Her Majesty but the monarchy at work, which is also why we re-titled it."

There are more insightful scenes in this series than the Liebovitz shoot, says Bennett. "There's a much bigger story here which is the Queen's trip to the US where she meets Laura and George Bush and you see an up-close view of that visit," she says, while accepting that the photo shoot segment needs to be shown in full.

Now she must identify a new controller for BBC1 to replace Fincham, who she praises as a "great impresario". She credits him with having brought a "big structural improvement to the heart of the BBC1 schedule" by introducing The One Show.

"That was one of the ideas that Peter instigated. The One Show is going from strength to strength. It's got lots of specialism as well as having a friendly feel. It's interesting that in this day and age a magazine show can punch through and be really highly appreciated by the audience."

Fincham, she acknowledges, also brought comedy to Friday nights on BBC1. Bennett proclaims herself a big advocate of the positive attributes of comedy, though in her heavy glasses she cuts a serious figure, even when discussing the merits of slick British Iranian comic Omid Djalili, who has been introduced to the primetime Saturday BBC1 schedule.

"Omid Djalili's launch wouldn't have been predicted a few years back but it's part of the comedy strategy that I helped write. We talked about the need to create what we are calling the 'modern mainstream' in comedy – putting out comedy in such a way that shows BBC1 is not predictable, you can't classify it," she says. "Comedy needs to be on all our channels in different guises. It needs to keep growing different audiences because it's otherwise at risk of being a market failure genre; it doesn't make sense according to the rule book of profit and loss to invest heavily in comedy because the ratio of success and failure can be unknown. However, we know that it's very important to our culture."

She points to other shows to support a claim that BBC television remains in healthy shape, despite a year of trauma. "You've got a great amount of choice whether it's Top Gear or the Blair series or Strictly on Saturday and Sunday and then Cranford is a real treat. It shows that television is really thriving."

Bennett also drew great comfort from the record takings at this month's Children in Need, claiming it showed that the charity brand had not suffered lasting damage from its association with the television phone-in scandal. "The audience level and the amount of giving shows that the audience absolutely knows the difference between a commercial imperative and in this case the BBC having no commercial interest but asking people in a really clear way to donate money for really good causes. It absolutely shows that we can get over and restore the kind of questions of trust that broadcasters have had to accept have been caused."

That might sound complacent to some, but Bennett thinks younger viewers are growing in media sophistication and will learn further from the BBC's How we make TV website, which will "lift the bonnet" on the production process. More BBC film content will move online, with the BBC3 website re-launching early in the year and CBeebies also being developed as a multi-platform brand, reflecting her belief that "children are in the vanguard of this [online] creative thinking".

Bennett accepts that 2007 has been a "year of going through gauntlets and that's not just me individually but for the industry". Though she expresses doubt that the press industry would stand up to the same scrutiny of standards, she accepts that "there may be things to be learned from [print] journalists when it comes to things like corrections pages" and that the television industry has learned that "it's really important for the audience and contributors of any sort to be dealt with fairly". Nonetheless, her overriding message is that "it's really important to not sit and dwell on [past problems] but to move ahead".

She has some big ideas for landmark shows. Earlier this month she was in Manchester, drawing inspiration from the Good Book. "The Religion Department have got an absolutely fantastic project on the Bible and the online exploration of the Bible could be a wonderful resource for people in this country. Whether you are religious or not, it would be a fantastic learning resource." The Bible special is due on air in two years, though some would say Bennett could do with some divine inspiration before that.

Meanwhile, she can enjoy another special, due to dominate the summer schedules. Britain from Above aims to show the country from the air, expanding on the experience of satellite-based features such as Google Earth. The centre-piece will be three BBC1 hour-long documentaries that use new technology to trace, among other things, the increased movement of aeroplanes over the British Isles and how "phantom" traffic jams can form on motorways. A companion series on BBC2 will focus on London and other key locations to illustrate how they have changed in the past 60 years. "I think it has got a kind of boldness to it. It is multi-platform in that you can connect up to all sorts of different types of information," says Bennett. "Get onto Google Earth and what do you do? You look down don't you? And you see things differently. This is looking at the bird's eye view not just of the literal scene below you but of the stories below. We are going to show the history of how Britain has changed over time since it has been photographed but you can also see the changing shape of cities, it tells a fantastic human story as well as a natural history or geography story."

A shocking period in the history of the BBC may not yet be over and so the bird's eye will also remain firmly on Jana Bennett. But this new commission seems to reflect her outlook: onwards and upwards.

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