Broadcaster 'tried to rush out' retraction on busy news day

Grade tells Paul Vallely that timing of statement was 'too much of a coincidence'

The BBC tried to bury its apology to Band Aid by broadcasting it on a heavy news day, the former chairman of the BBC and Band Aid trustee, Michael Grade, claimed yesterday.

"On a number of occasions the BBC tried to rush out an announcement, on heavy news days," said Mr Grade, a former Controller of BBC1 and chief executive of Channel 4. "They tried to bounce us into making an announcement, in terms that weren't agreed, on the day the Chilean miners were released and then on the day the public spending cuts were announced. They said it was just coincidence. But it was a bit too much of a coincidence, if you ask me."

Mr Grade said that the process of extracting an apology from the BBC had been protracted and painful. "From the moment it dawned on the BBC that they had got this story horribly wrong they seemed to believe that to come clean and apologise quickly would be a sign of weakness. They didn't grasp the fact that a quick and fulsome admission of failure is actually a sign of great strength," he said.

"It is surprising to me that a story so devoid of evidence could make it to air. Given the outcome of its own investigation, and the admissions now made, I'm very surprised that the BBC attempted to defend the smear."

But it did for almost eight months before agreeing to make an apology. It was "an unnecessarily difficult process", he said, which "does the BBC no credit whatsoever, undermining... its reputation as a world-class news organisation."

The strength of the BBC's reputation meant that when it does make a mistake it was "more serious than anybody else's mistake," he said. Bob Geldof agreed. "The BBC has a special obligation, most singularly in the case of the World Service whose broadcasts are relied upon by people in difficult situations in places like Africa where the truth can be a life or death issue," the Band Aid founder said. "So it has a particular responsibility to check its facts."

Yet the BBC had been terribly slow in owning up to the mistake it had made. "The Band Aid trustees are all experienced campaigners," said Michael Grade. "We know the media, how it works, the people, we know the levers to pull. Yet this whole process has been a nightmare for us. So what chance does the ordinary person have of getting redress from the BBC. It is very worrying.

"Everybody makes mistakes. It's how quickly you put them right that counts. What we discovered is that there is a large degree of arrogance in the BBC on the journalistic side that doesn't believe it can be wrong. And most of the time it isn't. I've been on the other side. And I know there are many times where powerful people put pressure on you to drop the story or alter it and you check it out and find out its true. So it's understandable that their first response to us was that we were just trying to put pressure on them.

"But there must have come a moment quite early in the process where they realised that the programme didn't stack up," he said. Yet two months in the BBC Director General wrote to the trustees maintaining the reports were "robust and excellent journalism". "That looks a bit odd now in the light of these apologies. I don't know how he could have written that letter knowing what we now know."

John Kennedy, a former record industry lawyer and the Band Aid trustee who oversaw the complaint believes the BBC complaints system needs an overhaul. "I have respect for the professionalism shown by the complaints unit but they are in a difficult position. They are investigating complaints against the BBC, on BBC notepaper, in BBC premises, hired and fired by the BBC and answerable to the BBC, so I don't see how they really can be independent," he said. "BBC funds should be used to fund a completely independent unit."

Ofcom could not fulfil that role as it is constituted: "Unfortunately, the rules relating to complaints to Ofcom on the BBC are a labyrinth of complexity". Ofcom should have greater teeth so far as the BBC is concerned.

"If people of the influence of Bob Geldof and Michael Grade – backed by contacts and expertise that could put thousands of hours into this complaint – struggled, what hope would a wronged ordinary individual have of getting any semblance of justice from this process?"

"In the end we have the outcome we wanted," concluded Bob Geldof. "But serious damage may well have been done to people's confidence that the money they give to those in need gets where it is supposed to. And the most fulsome apology can never undo all the damage that has been done."