Andreas Whittam Smith: Four years on, the BBC seems to have learnt nothing

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The Independent Online

The questions that Lord Hutton asked of the BBC in January 2004, when enquiring into the "Circumstances Surrounding the Death of Dr David Kelly" are still surprisingly relevant. This time, they concern the publication of film that was manipulated to show the Queen angrily walking out of a photoshoot when she did not. The footage was a so-called launch tape, made to publicise a documentary entitled A Year With the Queen. A BBC inquiry into the error was published on Friday.

Four years ago, Lord Hutton was occupied with a very different sort of story, although the issues are the same. He was examining the work of a BBC reporter, Andrew Gilligan, who made allegations of government duplicity in its preparation of an Iraq dossier for release to the public. Mr Gilligan first broadcast the charge on the Today programme. He removed the sting in subsequent broadcasts, but what had been said couldn't be unsaid.

Lord Hutton's first question was whether the BBC had failed to exercise proper editorial control over Mr Gilligan's output. The question today is whether, in commissioning an independent company to make the royal documentary and a second independent company to do the launch tape, the BBC neglected to use the editorial control that was reserved to it under the contracts.

In the case of Mr Gilligan, it turned out that his first broadcast was unscripted and made from his own home. No editor saw it or approved it. Just the same thing happened with the footage of the Queen. As the BBC's official investigation puts it: "there was no editorial check of the tape by anyone connected with the programme. This was custom and practice". The freedom given to Mr Gilligan to broadcast without supervision was also custom and practice.

These persistent failures of editorial control show an astonishing insouciance. It is as if an airline didn't take safety checks seriously or a hospital failed to keep surgical instruments absolutely clean.

For daily newspaper and broadcasting companies are also enterprises whose mistakes can have terrible consequences. They can and they do cause unnecessary harm to people and institutions when their work is faulty. They require rigorous systems to minimise this risk. Their raw material, news, whether in the form of reports, or features, or documentaries, or interviews or whatever, is best thought of as if it were dynamite. It needs careful handling, for it can blow up in your face. How many times will the BBC have to suffer burns and scars before it learns this lesson?

Lord Hutton's second question was whether the BBC management was at fault in failing to investigate properly and adequately the Government's complaints about Mr Gilligan's report. Again, the very same issues arise with the faked publicity material for A Year With The Queen. The misleading tape was duly shown to the press at a launch event. A BBC executive, unaware that the material was in effect a filmed or broadcast lie, breezily told the audience that the footage showed that the Queen was "losing it a bit and walked out in a huff".

Soon afterwards, the executive producer for the independent production company was told about the "storming off" and commented that this "doesn't sound right". This was the first indication that a horrible mistake had been made.

By 7pm on 11 July, the BBC1 channel controller and his head of communications knew that the material had been falsified. By 9.44pm a statement of retraction had been agreed. It was decided, however, that the statement should be held over until the next morning when the parties could "check the temperature of the story." By now, the footage was running on websites and one tabloid newspaper was leading with the story. And the next morning, BBC News started broadcasting the very material which some senior BBC executive knew was fraudulent. They didn't stop until midnight.

The same paralysis gripped the BBC in the case of Mr Gilligan's allegations. It took the corporation almost a month to examine Mr Gilligan's notes of his meeting with Dr Kelly. And it then failed to appreciate that they did not fully support the most serious of Mr Gilligan's charges. This seems to be a pattern. The BBC doesn't understand that when errors are made, as they will be from time to time, even in the best run news organisations, swift rectification is a public duty.

That the BBC still doesn't get it is truly amazing. As a result of the Iraq dossier affair, the corporation lost its director-general and its chairman of the board of governors. Yet nearly four years later, it repeats the mistakes, and I believe it will do so again.

The BBC investigation quotes with approval the rubric "when in doubt, refer up". The report states that this is neither a weakness nor passing the buck, but sharing a problem with others whose seniority and experience will help to achieve the best possible solution to a problem. This sounds sensible, but unfortunately what it can mean in practice is that, fearing to take responsibility, everybody always refers up – only to find that the seniors are too busy to give a considered response. Here are my three golden rules for BBC executives:

1. Respect the viewers and listeners. Don't treat them as dumb beasts whom you can trick.

2. Never give editorial control to an outside body or neglect to exercise it close to the action.

3. Correct mistakes immediately. Any delay multiplies the damage to the Corporation at an exponential rate.

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