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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