Richard Sambrook: Surviving the backlash

Two years ago, Richard Sambrook was head of BBC News when Lord Hutton delivered his devastating blow, costing the chairman and director general their jobs. He tells Raymond Snoddy about how he survived the backlash
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Saturday marked a significant anniversary for the BBC but hardly one it will be keen to mention, still less celebrate - the second anniversary of the publication of the Hutton report.

But one of the great survivors of the crisis that rocked the BBC to its foundations, Richard Sambrook, then head of BBC News, now director of both the BBC World Service and its global news division, is happy to talk about the lessons learned, the effect on BBC journalism and about his own career two years on.

"I think if you ever find yourself in one of those head-to-head confrontations (with Government) again, two things: one, buy some time, and two, bring in an independent third party. Buy time and arbitration," Sambrook concludes from the bitter row that could have cost him his job.

There were also immediate lessons that have already been implemented, he believes: making sure that everybody in the BBC is clear about its journalistic values and standards, strengthening the corporation's accountability and complaints process and introducing greater separation between governance and management.

"Necessary improvements. Lessons learned and put into practice," says Sambrook who emerged from the Hutton cloud virtually unscathed to travel to the top job at Bush House, headquarters of the international services of the BBC.

It was seen by many as a sideways move. "I never felt that. I always felt that it was the natural next job for me to do in the BBC," says Sambrook, who has spent his entire BBC career in news but behind the scenes and without ever being an on-screen reporter.

"I have never had any ambitions to be director-general. I would hate it, to be honest with you. We had Hutton and all the rest of it. The vacancy was there, and also because of what we had been through it was right for me to have a change and right for the news division to have a change too," he admits.

That he has survived so well when BBC chairman Gavyn Davies and director-general Greg Dyke both resigned is probably down to two factors that Sambrook will not discuss even now.

It is believed that during the crisis, Sambrook argued unsuccessfully for a swifter and better apology for the part of the coverage on weapons of mass destruction the BBC was judged to have got wrong - claiming the Government deliberately misled the public - and pressing for the row to be taken to independent arbitration.

The irony was that two Labour supporters in Dyke and Davies felt they could not be seen to do a deal with a Labour government - and elected instead to fight, without compromise, on the issue of the BBC's independence.

"I think we got a lot of things right but we got one big thing wrong and there was a lot of mis-communication. Given that somebody died we should all feel bad," Sambrook admits.

As one of the BBC's most experienced news executives he is adamant, however, that BBC journalism is still as robust post-Hutton as it has ever been. "I see no softening at all on that front. When I look at some of the Panorama and Newsnight programmes, such as Allies on Trial, I don't think there is any softening of approach there at all," he insists.

It is also said of Sambrook that he has been lying low - certainly in the UK - since moving over to the World Service 18 months ago.

"That's probably fair to an extent," he concedes. But he says the reason is that he needed time to get his mind around the complexities of deciding what the future strategy of the World Service should be. As a domestic news man he also had to develop, as rapidly as possible, a much more international perspective for a service that at the time broadcast in 43 different languages.

His first job was to decide whether the main task at Bush House was to "polish the brass plate" and nurture the considerable reputation of the organisation, or go for a more radical option of modernising and reorganising an institution that was facing growing competitive threats from every quarter.

Sambrook went for the radical option and in October announced plans to save an eventual £30m a year to reinvest in a new Arabic television service and up to six foreign language television channels, while beefing up both internet output and marketing. The dramatic effect of the associated cost cuts began in December and continued this month as radio services that in many cases had sustained Eastern European nations through the Cold War were turned off one by one.

This month the BBC World Service finally switched off its Thai broadcasts, and tomorrow the Czech and Croatian services will also be no more. Last month the plug was pulled on seven other language services ranging from Polish and Hungarian to Slovene and Kazakh, adding up to the biggest cull in the more than 70-year history of the organisation. "They are the most radical changes in the World Service, certainly since the Second World War and arguably since it was set up," says Sambrook, who finds himself at the centre of controversy once again - although nothing like on the previous scale.

There were some protests but not many, he claims. Most governments involved said after meeting BBC executives that they were sad to see their services go but understood the reasons. Lobbying groups and parliamentarians also accepted the logic. Most of the services dropped were for countries that recently had, or were about to join, the European Union and free access to information was hardly the issue it once was. "It's about relative importance. It's about a choice," explains Sambrook in the office occupied in the past by broadcasting heavyweights such as John Tusa.

When all the radio services were ranked in terms of geo-political importance, the availability of independent information and their reach and impact, the 10 now being closed emerged as a cluster. The BBC and the paymasters of the World Service, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, had to decide whether it was more important to retain the radio services or "really address the issue in the Middle East" and launch Arabic television.

Arabic was the first radio language launched by the World Service and the first internet language. In the first quarter of next year it will become the BBC's first foreign language television service and will be available free-to-air via satellite. The service will be based mainly in London but new Middle East bureaux will be set up in centres such as Cairo and Dubai.

The planned new service is clearly a response to the rise of Arabic 24-hour television news channels such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. But Sambrook does not see the new BBC channel competing directly with them.

The public service channel will seek to differentiate itself by emphasising BBC values with the hope that the BBC channel will become part of most people's viewing habits in the Middle East.

"So whereas al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya are regional services reporting the Middle East to the Middle East, we are going to be reporting the world to the Middle East in Arabic and calling on all the BBC's international resources," Sambrook promises.

For Sambrook the global news industry is now facing "a huge period of turbulence" having to deal with not just huge stories such as terrorism and the economic rise of Asia but also intense competition from new channels and everything from the activities of bloggers to the rise of citizen journalism.

"Al-Jazeera is about to launch a 24-hour channel in English. The Russians have just launched a news channel in English and the French have said they are going to launch their channel this year. Every other week you read of another global news channel in prospect somewhere," says Sambrook. How can the BBC cope?

The World Service director believes the BBC has important advantages when facing rivals: trust, expertise in language broadcasting (32 languages survive) and a presence in radio, television and the internet. Add all its audiences together and the BBC claims a global weekly reach of 190 million people, more than all its rivals.

"If you put together huge respect and trust in the brand, strength in all three platforms and multilingual expertise, that's an enormous advantage to start with," says Sambrook. "The issue for us is how do we take that forward and clearly part of that is moving into language television."

Apart from Arabic, the World Service is already looking at the possibility of a Pashto or Persian television service and Sambrook would like to launch four, five or even six television language channels, a number with private-sector partners. Some could also be streamed over the internet to reduce costs.

"India is a very tough market but it's also a very big market. On a commercial basis if we could find the right partner we would love to have some Hindi TV operations," he adds.

Obviously a television channel in China can only be a long-term goal because the World Service cannot even get its internet service accepted in China at the moment. "China is changing and will liberalise over a period of time and we are not ruling it out. You have to build relationships there," says Sambrook.

Perhaps with the Olympics coming up there is room for co-operation in sports production, or maybe the Chinese might be interested in children's television from the BBC, he suggests.

Although the new thrust is clearly in television, short-wave radio, the traditional mainstay of the World Service, is far from dead. In India, for example, listening is increasing in rural areas after a promotional campaign, although for the cities either FM radio or satellite television is a necessity. "We have to follow the market to an extent, so where short wave is successful, fantastic. We have to recognise it is in decline in a lot of key markets and it gets to a point where you might as well switch it off and find other forms of distribution," he admits.

His predecessor Mark Byford caused a fuss when he switched off the North American service. Now the World Service is available there on satellite radio and via the internet and listening figures have risen. "The idea that Americans would be listening to the World Service in short wave is pretty anachronistic," Sambrook points out.

This year he is optimistic that BBC World, the English-language television news service, will make its first breakthrough into the crowded American television market - and break even by the end of the decade.

In his first 18 months at Bush House there have been many other preoccupations that go beyond the structural changes. They range from issues such as the safety of journalists and defending editorial standards, to the role of professional news organisations in an age of bloggers and citizen journalists and how to import more international expertise into the domestic news channels of the BBC.

Sambrook is chairing an international committee of inquiry into the safety of journalists: last year was the worst for a decade with at least 63 journalists killed while doing their jobs.

Patterns are beginning to emerge. Despite wars, most journalists are killed in their own countries and one of the biggest issues emerging is that of impunity.

"Where journalists are killed no one cares and nothing happens," says Sambrook.

A number of practical proposals are emerging: the provision of safe houses for threatened journalists, the provision of hotlines to publicise the disappearance of journalists and creation of a "risk list" highlighting the countries where most journalists are murdered. This could then be used as a lobbying tool with international aid organisations. "We are looking for ways of forcing people to take this issue more seriously because at the moment nobody takes it seriously enough," he says.

Another challenge he believes all of the media are facing is what the BBC executive calls "authenticity", or rather the lack of it. He admits he found it difficult to watch Broken News, the BBC2 satire on news production techniques, without flinching because it is too close to reality. "Something there is broken and we are going to have to find something new," says Sambrook. "Part of the crisis of confidence in journalism is that people sense there is a falseness about production - it applies to newspapers as well - a manipulation. They distrust the mediation. Authenticity is the word that defines that issue for me and I think that's a big challenge for all of us."

At the same time, Sambrook is still optimistic that "fact-based journalism" can still survive and flourish in a world where partisan news and opinion and blogging are becoming ever more pervasive.

"Our role, and the serious media's role, is going to be much more about verification of facts or verification of stories and about analysis," he believes. At the moment a lot of what people hear and pick up simply isn't true, he adds.

With his new international outlook does he think UK news is too insular?

"Yes I do and that's part of our ongoing discussion the whole time within the journalism board (of the BBC) and within senior management of the BBC," he replies.

The World Service ought to be the BBC's intelligence bank in terms of international affairs and the challenge is to bring more of that expertise back into UK services, Sambrook thinks.

The closure last month of the ITV News channel was certainly no cause for celebration.

"It's healthy to have competition. As someone involved in television journalism here for more than 20 years it is very sad to see what has happened to ITN because they are nothing like the force they used to be," he says.

Partly because of the growing strength of 24-hour television news it is Sky rather than ITN which is seen as the BBC's principal competition on the news front.

"I think it is true that increasingly we will be judged by the continuous news channels rather than by the Six O'Clock News and the Ten O'Clock News," says Sambrook.

As he prepares to set off for yet more travels in the Middle East, India and Africa, Richard Sambrook believes he has at least a five-year programme of work ahead of him in the World Service and in BBC global news.

It is something that not many people would have imagined, including probably him, on 28 January 2004 - the day Lord Hutton delivered his devastating verdict on BBC journalism.

TWO YEARS ON WHAT BECAME OF THE MAIN PLAYERS IN THE HUTTON DRAMA

Andrew Gilligan

The Today programme defence correspondent resigned from the BBC following publication of the Hutton report. He conceded some of his story was wrong but said the BBC was the victim of a "grave injustice" and warned that "this report casts a grave chill over all journalism". Joined The Spectator as defence and diplomatic editor. In a speech to the Edinburgh Television Festival in 2004 Gilligan spoke of his "awe" at the Government's "industrial-strength, 45-carat shamelessness" and said that the BBC should not retreat from controversial investigative journalism. In a 2005 drama-documentary, he was depicted altering his notes about his meeting with Dr Kelly. Gilligan described the depiction as "demonstrably, even absurdly, false".

Greg Dyke

Tendered his resignation to BBC governors but did not expect them to accept it. "On the day that I left, it had never crossed my mind that these silly bastards would respond in this way." Staff stopped work in protest and he received 6,000 supportive e-mails. Already a millionaire, he received a £456,000 pay-off and, in 2004, published his version of events in his autobiography Inside Story. Promoting the book at the Cheltenham Literary Festival he accused the Government of "trying to kill" Andrew Gilligan. Last year the former Labour backer told a Liberal Democrat press conference that "democracy was under threat if Labour was elected for a third term". Dyke is Chancellor of the University of York, and writes for The Independent.

Kevin Marsh

Editor of the Today programme then and now. Lord Hutton condemned him for "defective" editorial processes. Subsequent BBC inquiry found the criticisms unjustified but only after Marsh had been interrogated by a "kangaroo court". He hired a lawyer to defend his reputation. Criticised since for trivialising Today with competitions, guest editors and lighter stories, he has made the programme very different from what it was under his predecessor, Rod Liddle (who recruited Gilligan). Emphatically denies it has lost its edge. "That depends what you want the edge to be. If you think Today is about snarling juvenilism, being aggressive for the sake of it, yes, that edge has gone." A BBC lifer since joining in 1978 he is credited internally with restoring Today's reputation in difficult circumstances.

Lord Hutton

Having satisfied himself that "Dr Kelly did not say to Mr Gilligan that the Government probably knew or suspected that the 45-minute claim was wrong", Lord Hutton retired as a Law Lord before his report was published. Now sits in the House of Lords as a crossbench peer. He has strenuously denied that his report amounted to a "whitewash". In May 2004 he told a parliamentary committee: "It is certainly not pleasant to be attacked in the press", but having reflected on criticism he "was still of the view that I was right". The cost of his inquiry was recently revealed as £2.54m. Lord (Brian) Hutton has been married to Rosalind Ann Nickols since 2001. He has two daughters by his first wife, Mary Murland (died 2000), and two stepsons and a stepdaughter.

Gavyn Davies

The first BBC victim of Hutton resigned before Greg Dyke and Andrew Gilligan and threatened to sue Alastair Campbell for comments he made after the report was published. Before becoming BBC chairman in 2001 he was among the most respected economists in the City of London. He is now chairman of Fulcrum Asset Management. Despite close links to New Labour - his wife Sue Nye still works for Gordon Brown - Davies has criticised British democracy and described parliamentary committees as "entirely controlled by the power of No 10's patronage". Recently condemned Lord Hutton as "inept", saying: "Inspector Clouseau would have been a more forensic sleuth." Davies's personal wealth is estimated at £150m.

Alastair Campbell

The Prime Minister's director of communications quit halfway through the Hutton inquiry to spend more time with his family, but he did not conceal his glee at the findings and soon re-emerged touring theatres with his one-man show An Audience with Alastair Campbell. In 2005 he joined the British and Irish Lions rugby tour of New Zealand as a media consultant and was criticised as a "negative influence". He revealed during the inquiry that he kept a diary but publication will be delayed until after Tony Blair retires. His partner Fiona Millar has recently emerged as a prominent critic of the Prime Minister's education reforms. Last week Downing Street confirmed that Campbell has returned to work for Blair in an unspecified, voluntary role.

Susan Watts

The Newsnight science editor recorded a telephone conversation with Dr David Kelly before Andrew Gilligan spoke to him. Her notes revealed that he had also mentioned to her the name of Alastair Campbell in relation to the 45 minutes claim. But she dismissed it as "gossip". Lord Hutton described her as "an accurate and reliable witness". She is still at Newsnight where she is highly regarded and has recently reported on the links between cannabis and psychosis, and human cloning.

Janice Kelly

Lord Hutton thanked Dr Kelly's widow and her daughters for the "great assistance" they gave the inquiry. Mrs Kelly asked that the Government take action "to ensure the ordeal suffered by Dr Kelly is never repeated".

Will Wyatt, former chief executive of BBC Broadcast, and number two at the corporation

There was something wrong. On the day that BBC news chiefs and the director general were composing their reply to Alastair Campbell's broadside over the Kelly affair, one of those involved rang me to say, with a chuckle: "You'd never believe how different the atmosphere is to what it would have been under the former regime."

Under John Birt, there would have been a rigorous, unforgiving analysis of the issue, he implied. Now, I sensed, they were in "sod off" mode.

Two years after Hutton visited a near-death experience on the BBC, are things right now?

The corporation promised to "learn lessons". The fear was that it would geld the news operation in order to stay out of trouble - break fewer stories and avoid sensitive territory. Practitioners were on the alert for "loss of nerve". Certainly, there was a mini-fracas over cuts in a Today programme interview with the Archbishop of Canterbury, but it is hard to think of anything else.

Like some others, I thought that the reporting on the 7 July bombs in London was overcautious, but this was from a wish to keep Dame Rumour in check, and to be absolutely certain before spreading bad news. Sometimes, in the absence of certainty, it is necessary to report the word on the street with proper caveats. Foreign correspondents do it all the time.

Am I right to sense a growth in frothy stories on Today and on television news? The latter went a bit loopy over George Best. All this, I guess, is from a desire to widen the audience. The big picture, though, is one of confident journalism reporting honestly, poking about curiously and, on occasion, slipping a horseshoe into the glove.

In recent months, I have heard John Humphrys giving no quarter to Jack Straw and Lord Falconer. There was a Newsnight mock trial, arguing whether or not Allied forces in Iraq were guilty of war crimes. It was Newsnight that highlighted "serious failures " by the intelligence services that had tracked the London bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan; and through Michael Crick, the same programme revealed secret evidence that the UK gave Israel the ability to build atom bombs. Nick Robinson broke the story that Gordon Brown was rubbishing the Turner report a week before publication; and I saw John Ware's devastating Panorama on the leadership of the Muslim Council of Britain.

No geldings there.

It might seem surprising that the shock waves of Hutton did not do more damage to the BBC's journalism. The main reason, I believe, is that the corporation truly did examine itself and learn. Nearly 7,000 BBC journalists and producers have been through a training session based on the lessons from Ronald Neil's report, lessons rooted in the values of BBC journalism - truth, accuracy and independence prominent among them.

John Kampfner is editor of the 'New Statesman' and former political correspondent of 'Today'

When I wrote a cover piece in the New Statesman in early October drawing attention to a damaging culture of fear at the BBC, I fully expected the denunciations to arrive from the top brass.

And how they did. Offset against that, many corporation staffers contacted me - not using their work e-mail addresses, naturally - expressing gratitude that someone had finally put into the public domain concerns that had been growing since the absurd Hutton report. Some told me, however, that I was guilty of the same caution I had criticised in others. "Why didn't you contact me as well? I could have given you many worse examples," was a common refrain.

The examples continue to arrive, but I think I have made my point. Mine was not, as an executive misconstrued it, an attack on BBC journalists. It was the reverse. It was a plea from senior correspondents, producers and editors to their managers - the people who take £15m in bonuses as they slash 4,000 jobs - to stop fretting every time someone tries to do something courageous.

Nor was it a call for cavalier or slovenly journalism. The best and most fearless reporters tend to be the most thorough. Anodyne journalism takes the least time and effort to do.

So has anything changed? Yes and no. The arrival of Peter Horrocks as the head of television news is a good development. Some programmes are trying harder than others. Newsnight, under Peter Barron, has finally sharpened up its reporting and is becoming required viewing again. In news, David Shukman has pursued the environmental agenda with tenacity.

Nevertheless, I still cannot see a structural change that will lead the BBC away from its default position of ultra-caution.

Again I ask: where is the system of reward and promotion for journalists who take intelligent risks? Why are so many bulletins - television and radio - still so bland? When was the last correspondent or editor hauled up in front of one of the BBC's many internal enquiries to answer for failing to broadcast a difficult story or treating officialdom too softly?

The abject response of the BBC's governors to Lord Hutton's report in January 2004 was one of the most miserable episodes in the corporation's whole history.

Mistakes, clearly, were made by the ancien régime, but there was no need then to raise the white flag. Morale, as a recent staff survey shows, remains low. More work needs to be done to convince employees, and the public, that the BBC has discovered, or rediscovered, nerves of steel.

The author is the editor of the 'New Statesman' and is a former political correspondent and analyst for BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme

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