Christopher Bland: The BBC must hold its nerve against Fifa

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The Independent Online

Half a century ago, Malcolm Muggeridge described the BBC as "a vast structure, a conglomeration of studios, offices, cool passages along which many passed to and fro; a society with its king, lords and commoners, its laws and dossiers and revenue and easily suppressed insurrection".

Easily suppressed? In 2010 that's not so clear. The National Union of Journalists had only a modest response from its call to strike last week; the curious thing about industrial action at the BBC is that, unlike a commercial organisation, there is no financial loss to the corporation as a result of a strike. Indeed, there is a modest saving on the salaries of the strikers. The real damage is reputational and to the viewers and listeners, although there has been little impact so far. It is a modest success for Mark Thompson that he has succeeded in persuading the NUJ to call off next week's two days of industrial action in return for agreeing to further talks about pensions.

The problems at the BBC are not only over pensions. There is an underlying internal BBC unease about high salaries for executives and artists, an unease shared by the public, that won't easily go away, and has only been partially assuaged by top managers at the BBC taking salary cuts and giving up their bonuses. And the row over Jonathan Ross, however overblown by the Daily Mail, did the BBC serious damage because the BBC took too long to react.

There is, of course, almost always a row at the BBC. The director general needs to decide first of all: is it a big row or a little row? If little, ignore it. If big, is there anything you can do about it? If nothing can be done, wait for it to go away, and be replaced by the next one.

The BBC is like a small country, a country in which regime change is frequent and sometimes, as at the time of the Hutton report, violent and bloody. Some commentators have called for Mark Thompson's head, and recently the chairman of the BBC Trust, Sir Michael Lyons, who has made a decent fist of an impossible job, announced that he did not intend to seek re-appointment. No sane man or woman will rush to succeed him.

Meanwhile, the BBC's programmes, which are what really should matter most to us all, are in pretty good shape. The BBC Trust has recently made its ritual call for more innovation and less enthusiasm for ratings, but Radios 3 and 4 are alone worth the licence fee. A week in which you could see a programme about Wilfred Owen on BBC2 and Keith Douglas on BBC4 demonstrates that the BBC is still doing things that no other broadcaster in the world will do, and doing them in peak time.

The current row over the imminent Panorama programme on Fifa will prove an important test of the BBC's nerve. It is clear that pressure to reschedule the programme has already been applied. And the president of Fifa, Sepp Blatter, has issued barely veiled threats that investigative journalism may not help England to host the World Cup in 2018. In relation to a recent investigation by The Sunday Times, he said: "Why did it happen and why did it happen specifically by English journalists? We are looking into that."

His attitude to Panorama is likely to be equally hostile; he has until Monday to decide whether to appear. At a recent press conference he seemed genuinely surprised and shocked at the question "Is Fifa corrupt?". His subsequent appeal for trust is unlikely to be answered until the Fifa ethics committee reports on the two Fifa members suspended following The Sunday Times sting. Both, if reinstated, will have a vote on the destination of World Cup 2018. Neither seems likely to vote for England.

Sepp Blatter did comment: "Our society is full of devils. These devils you find them in football." Well, yes. It is by no means clear that we can count on Fifa for the necessary exorcism. It remains a matter of record that no Fifa disciplinary action was taken against the Fifa committee members accused of improper behaviour in a Swiss court in 2008, including Nicolas Leoz from Paraguay. The defendants in that case (which didn't include Leoz) were forced to pay legal costs and make £3.3m in restitution payments. Remarkably, under Swiss law, bribery was not an offence at the time. Leoz will vote on the 2018 decision.

Pressure on the BBC and on Panorama is likely to intensify and escalate. The unedifying list of dignitaries due to attend the 2018 decision day in Zurich next month includes Bill Clinton, the Australian Prime Minister, the Emir of Qatar and the Prime Minister of the Netherlands.

And David Cameron. He would be well advised to stay away. Let us hope his comment in Seoul that "he was spending more time on the World Cup than on the G20" was ironic. Tony Blair's example in helping to collect the poisoned chalice of the next Olympic Games is worth noting, in order to do the opposite. By all means send Prince Harry and David Beckham, people with nothing better to do. Like the cavalry in modern warfare, their job will be to add tone to what otherwise would be a vulgar brawl. But we shouldn't send the Prime Minister. To reverse Bill Shankly's famous quotation, "Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much less serious than that."

Sir Christopher Bland was chairman of the Board of Governors of the BBC from 1996 to 2001