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

voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
The Pipes and Drums of The Scottish Regiments perform during the Opening Ceremony for the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park on July 23, 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Commonwealth GamesThe actor encouraged the one billion viewers of the event to donate to the children's charity
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Very tasty: Vladimir Putin dining alone, perhaps sensibly
newsJohn Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
Joining forces: young British men feature in an Isis video in which they urge Islamists in the West to join them in Iraq and Syria
newsWill the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Bey can do it: Beyoncé re-enacts Rosie the Riveter's pose
newsRosie the Riveter started out as an American wartime poster girl and has become a feminist pin-up. With Beyoncé channeling her look, Gillian Orr tells her story
Life and Style
Donna and Paul Wheatley at their wedding
healthShould emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Web / Digital Analyst - SiteCatalyst or Google Analytics

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Data Scientist

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A data analytics are currently looking t...

Graduate Sales Executive

17.5k + Commission (£18.5k after probation period): ESI Media: You will be res...

PPC Account Managers

£25k - £30k (DOE): Guru Careers: Two expert PPC Account Managers are needed to...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?

Some couples are allowed emergency hospital weddings, others are denied the right. Kate Hilpern reports on the growing case for a compassionate cutting of the red tape
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit