BBC arrogance turned Panorama's mistake into a catastrophe

The use of unreliable footage was bad enough. The subsequent spin was even worse, argues BBC veteran Tom Mangold

For nearly 60 years, the BBC's Panorama programme has been the gold standard of television journalism. It has been unimpeachable: well researched, at times groundbreaking, and, above all, accurate.

But today that golden history lies in ruins. An unwilling Panorama has been forced to make a humiliating on-air apology after the BBC Trust ruled that footage of young boys working in a Bangalore sweatshop, used in a June 2008 investigation into the source of Primark clothing, was probably faked.

Serious questions are being asked about why the BBC so vigorously defended the editorial team and why no one has been – or will be – held responsible. Even more humiliatingly, the BBC is now under pressure to hand back a prestigious Royal Television Society (RTS) award it won for the programme. Richard Dimbleby must be spinning in his grave.

I am proud to remain part of the BBC's journalism, after 40 years with the organisation. I made nearly 100 films during 26 years as a Panorama reporter. I know many of the programme's production staff and have been told in no uncertain terms that many are deeply unhappy at the erosion of the journalistic checks and balances in the name of greater efficiency – a euphemism for making television on the cheap.

In 1993, I myself received an RTS award after spending months investigating a miscarriage of justice for the programme. I was the show's reporter, but I worked with a full-time producer and researcher who were with me at all times on the road.

In my time, the BBC machine had inbuilt firewalls to prevent lying and misrepresentation. Back in the office, the corporation's lawyers pored over every word and frame of the material before a formidable editor checked each interview transcript to ensure we had cut interviews fairly. I never knew of any faked footage reaching the screen. It would have required too large a conspiracy, involving too many people who cared deeply about the integrity of the BBC.

But things are different now. As associate producer/investigator on the programme, Dan McDougall, an experienced newspaper journalist, was given extraordinary licence to gather footage and background research without what used to be the customary supervision. Panorama's producer and the reporter Tom Heap were flown to India to record links and interviews only after McDougall had completed his investigation.

But it appears that the team was short of evidence to back up its central claim that Primark was knowingly using child labour. Somehow, a small but vital piece of film footage was allowed to reach the screen. It may have been faked. It certainly did not have the cast-iron provenance Panorama should have demanded.

This, by the way, wasn't just any piece of "background colour". It was purportedly "proof" of Panorama's central allegation about Primark's business ethics, and as such should have been the most heavily checked part of the documentary. When the show was aired, Primark immediately complained that parts of the programme were untrue and may have been fabricated: a serious allegation that should have prompted the editor of Panorama to authorise an immediate independent investigation in India by, say, a reputable private detective.

Primark believes its own investigation supports its case, but the BBC properly rejected its findings because normal evidential rules had not been followed. Crucially, more questions should have been asked after Primark's formal complaint. Had the freelance journalist worked with appropriate supervision? Had there been sufficient independent verification of his material?

Primark's objections were investigated by the BBC's internal Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU); its admirable report, completed last summer, was, at the request of Primark, never published – because the retailer thought it would jeopardise its appeal to the BBC Trust. Remarkably, senior BBC managers used that decision to put an aggressive public relations operation into action: someone authorised the press office to brief several newspapers that Panorama had been exonerated, when, in fact, the report had done nothing of the sort. In fact, the ECU, set up after the Hutton inquiry, specifically highlighted the suspicious nature of the footage in question.

It is only now, three years after the programme was broadcast, that the BBC Trust has forced Panorama to admit the error of its ways. In the meantime, the BBC's arrogant refusal to admit it was wrong has resulted in an editorial catastrophe not only for Panorama, the flagship, but for all the corporation's journalism.

I joined Panorama from Fleet Street, where none of us had entirely clean hands. We coloured our stories as much as we could and thought nothing of doing things our editors never wanted to hear about. But, whatever we did, we never lied, deceived or made stories up. It was the short cut to the dole. And if a story wasn't good enough or couldn't be made to work – then there was always another round the corner. I know what it means to have to deliver with a tiny budget, but I also know when to give up.

The BBC has admitted that there were "serious editorial breaches in its editorial procedures in the preparation of the programme". But if the corporation insists that the procedures were broken and the freelance producer/cameraman was to blame, then it is missing the point. Certainly, McDougall is not happy, saying of the report: "I have rarely seen a finding so unjust in outcome, flawed in process, and deeply damaging to independent investigative journalism."

The BBC needs to conduct a searching inquiry into why its system of firewalls broke down, whether standards were cut along with costs, why the BBC dismissed complaints from Primark that we know to be true, and who within the BBC made the decision to aggressively defend Panorama, disregarding the concerns highlighted by its own Editorial Complaints Unit, and then brief journalists that the BBC had been vindicated and Primark was wrong.

Unless the BBC finds answers to these questions, it jeopardises its integrity. And, for the BBC, integrity should be everything.

Tom Mangold is a former chief correspondent of Panorama, where he worked from 1976 to 2003

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Rio Ferdinand returns for QPR
sportRio Ferdinand returns from his three-game suspension today
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
Billy Twelvetrees will start for England against Australia tomorrow with Owen Farrell dropping to the bench
rugbyEngland need a victory against Australia today
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
Tyson Fury poses outside the Imperial War Museum in south London ahead of his fight against Dereck Chisora
boxingAll British heavyweight clash gets underway on Saturday night
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Sales Manager

£60k - 80k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Full Stack Software Developer

£35k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game