'Flawed reporting' and the rise of Mr Dyke

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The Independent Online

The Government and Mr Tony Blair have had a rotten press over Lord Hutton's report. The response over the BBC has been more muted and more ambivalent. Popular phrases include "sloppy journalism" and "flawed reporting".

My advice to anyone coming across the word "flawed" is to be on guard. It is a great favourite of jobbing critics on the arts pages. A reviewer once described a book which I thought rather good as "flawed". I asked her later what she considered its flaws were. She could not point to a single one. All she meant was that she had not liked it very much, as she was perfectly entitled not to do. But she could have said so without bringing in this all-purpose word, the product, I suspect, of too many lectures in Eng Lit.

Along with the flawed reporting and the sloppy journalism goes, paradoxically, an exaltation in the reputation of Mr Greg Dyke. I had been about to write that it was a revival in his reputation, but the truth is that he never had much of one, except for making money in his previous jobs and for putting on some exceptionally silly programmes in his new one. His only claim to my good opinion is that he brought back the Six Nations rugby championship to the BBC.

Most of the output of both channels seems to consist of programmes about cooking; famous persons of whom I, unfortunately, have never heard; families that are coming apart at the seams; moving house; doing up your house (to sell at a huge profit rather than because you want a nice house); and, of course, snooker. Articles about the deficiencies of the BBC under Mr Dyke were as common as pubs in Carmarthen.

And then, suddenly, all was changed. Mr Dyke was displayed before our admiring eyes as a combination of patron of the arts and friend of liberty, of Lorenzo de Medici and Charles James Fox. Following his resignation, girls demonstrated in the streets. I did not know there were so many pretty girls - not, at any rate, gathered together in one place, certainly not in Broadcasting House. Even so, I am sure they would not have come out into a chilly Portland Place of their own free will. A directing hand must have been guiding the operation. It was reminiscent of those mass turnouts in eastern Europe when Communism was still going strong.

Yes indeed, people will say, we know all about Greg's silly programmes, but he did keep the Corporation independent of the Government. I do not want to depreciate Mr Dyke's achievement in this respect, or that of interviewers such as Mr John Humphrys and Mr Jeremy Paxman, or even of former correspondents such as Mr Andrew Gilligan, whom I still perhaps perversely regard as having been 95 per cent right rather than, as Mr Blair would prefer, 100 per cent wrong. The error is to suppose that independence and irreverence are qualities which are entirely new in the BBC, the consequences of Mr Dyke.

In the 1960s the nature of the BBC's coverage of politics was changed through two programmes, The World at One and PM (one being really the second edition of the other), and two journalists, Andrew Boyle and William Hardcastle. Boyle, the producer, was also a biographer who wrote several valuable books and was famous for exposing Anthony Blunt in one of them. Hardcastle, the presenter, was a former editor of the Daily Mail. Former editors of the Mail were then thick on the ground, but he was one of the best of the fickle Lord Rothermere's rejects (this was the grandfather of the present lord). He was a man of Old Fleet Street who liked a drink and smoked Camel cigarettes, the torn- up packets of which served as notepads for his interviews. This inevitably meant that his notes could not be very detailed.

I used to appear quite often with him as part of a double-act, the other half consisting usually of Robert Carvel of the Evening Standard, though sometimes Sir (as he then wasn't) Peregrine Worsthorne of the Sunday Telegraph would be invited to put in an appearance as my partner to add distinction to the proceedings. We said whatever came into our heads about the iniquities of Harold Wilson or the inadequacies of Edward Heath. I was then working for the New Statesman. Not once did anyone suggest that I should take Wilson's side.

It is fair to point out that journalists such as Carvel, Worsthorne and myself were given the freedom of the air, not perhaps because we were specially knowledgeable or accomplished, but precisely because we were not members of the BBC staff. If necessary, we could be disowned. Even in those days, the Corporation had a disproportionately large political staff, presided over by a pleasant though lugubrious character, Peter Hardiman Scott, who was called Peter by his friends but went under the trade name of Hardiman Scott. He would no more have embarrassed the government than appeared on the television news without a tie.

In succeeding years, the numbers of political correspondents have grown. They were slotted into news bulletins, speaking their words from a prepared script rather than having them incorporated into the newsreader's text. They were also interviewed by presenters in preference to outsiders. Interviews cannot in the nature of things be scripted as, presumably, Lord Hutton and others would like. But even before the complaints about sloppy journalism and flawed reporting, there was a tension - even a contradiction - between using staff for interviews and expecting accuracy in every respect.

It arose with Mr Dyke's predecessor John Birt. Previously he had made his name with London Weekend Television. He made it particularly with the programme Weekend World. He and the then presenter of that programme, Mr Peter Jay, added to their lustre with some newspaper articles containing the phrases "mission to explain" and "bias against understanding". For some curious reason these vapid words caught on.

What Lord Birt, at least, meant by them was that the end of every programme should be known at the beginning. He thought articles were like this - a grave misunderstanding of the creative process on his part - and he saw no reason why programmes should be any different. The consequence was that several of my colleagues had a lucrative sideline in backing up on the screen whatever it was that the makers of the programme had first decided they should say in support of the thesis of the week.

Inevitably, it sometimes went wrong. For instance, Weekend World was caught out badly by its failure to anticipate Mr Michael Foot's entry into the election of Labour leader. This was the fraudulent culture which Lord Birt tried to bring to the BBC. This is what is really meant by the call to end flawed reporting. And it is the death of proper journalism.