One can characterize the BBC’s coverage of the News International affair in a number of ways.
Plenty of knowledgeable people outside the corporation have expressed the view that it was too timid in its reporting up until the Milly Dowler story broke on July 4th of this year. To take one example, on July 13th Tom Watson, the Labour MP told a BBC interviewer that:
You know, we had a six-month parliamentary inquiry that found senior [News International] executives guilty of collective amnesia and stated that it was inconceivable that others at News International were not aware of phone hacking and nobody reported it.
That’s quite a big challenge back to the British media and that includes the BBC.
The inquiry published its findings in February 2010, a year and a half ago. The Guardian started publishing stories about News International’s payments to victims of voicemail hacking in August of 2009. The Information Commission’s report in May 2006 revealed ‘evidence of systematic breaches in personal privacy’ that amounted to ‘an unlawful trade in confidential personal information’. At no point, it seems, did the BBC think it worthwhile to put investigative reporters onto the story. Panorama, the corporation’s flagship documentary strand, had pressing business elsewhere. In the interview Watson suggested, quite mildly, that the BBC ‘should probably take a look at itself’.
Two days later on the 15th July the BBC did indeed take a look at itself. Radio 4’s Feedback ran a feature on the BBC’s coverage of the scandal. The programme mentioned the possibility that Robert Peston was too close to New International’s management. But for the most part it worried that there might have been too much coverage of the News International affair. The programme featured a number of listeners complaining that the coverage had been excessive – someone from Dorset, for example, pointed out that ‘there are many more important things that you could talk about’. The presenter, Roger Bolton acknowledged that the saga was ‘obsessively interesting’ to journalists but, he wondered, ‘have these events been given undue prominence and squeezed out other stories?’
He put this to the head of the BBC newsroom, Mary Hockaday. She gave a robust defence of the approach taken:
To be honest I don’t think any of us would have thought that nine, ten days ago, that we were facing more than a week of a story unraveling before us … It has become a story about our political class, it has become a story that has drawn our police into it, it has become a story not just about journalistic practice but the media as a business sector in this country and internationally.
She went on to explain that the BBC’s own research showed that the public trusted it on the issue and gave it ‘a high rating compared to some other stories, about the amount of coverage we’ve done.’
We’ll leave to one side the suggestion that none of the thousand journalists who work for Hockaday had any idea that the scandal might break out of the pages of the Guardian. If it’s true, they might want to read this blog in future. I was suggesting that the country was heading for a scandal of Italian proportions in February of this year.
Let’s focus instead on the way the BBC framed the issue.
Maybe there was too much coverage of the scandal, maybe the amount was just right, in light of its enormous significance. You’ve heard both sides presented in a balanced way, it’s up to you to make up your mind. This is the BBC tradition of robust self-criticism at its best.
But notice the other, missing, possibility. At no point did Hockaday have to deal with the suggestion that there had been too little coverage for far too long. The energetic wrongdoing at News International and elsewhere in the newspaper industry was made possible by a kind of institutional paralysis elsewhere in British public life. For reasons we don’t yet fully understand the police and our elected officials could do nothing to challenge the longstanding, systematic and illegal trade in private information. During this time the BBC exhibited quite stunning incuriosity about the mounting evidence of widespread, and highly consequential, criminality. They were part of the paralysis that made News International possible.
The BBC is not averse to taking a look at itself. Indeed, it makes a great show of doing so. The trouble is it can’t help finding its reflection irresistibly attractive.