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In the Pursuit of Purity: Reflections on the BBC

RISJ Admin

Contributing Author

Mark Damazer, Master of St Peter's College &  former Controller of BBC Radio 4
RISJ Lecture, Tuesday 14th June 2011

Greg Wilesmith writes:

Excellence, said Mark Damazer, is the fundamental test for the BBC.

"It stands for outright excellence or it stands for nothing," he said. "In this sense the BBC is an elite organisation and there should be no shame attached to that."

In a 27 year BBC career which included editing the Nine O'clock News on television and commanding the intellectual heartland of Radio 4, Damazer, a self-declared BBC "patriot" thought long and hard about the corporation’s  strengths and weaknesses.

Now, on further reflection after leaving the BBC last year he has no compunction about asserting the need for the BBC to strive "for purity" even if this is clearly implausible 100% of the time. Nor could it achieve "perfect impartiality", which was why, he said, his RISJ lecture could just as easily have been titled 'The Nobility of Failure'.

"If the BBC's choices in any field of activity are defined by what is the mean average of everyone else's choices - on news values for instance – it is not worth the licence fee...the BBC as a whole is trying – and largely succeeding in trying to be the great public service broadcaster it needs to be - not least in its core - as a journalistic enterprise of high quality, range and integrity."

Damazer asserted that BBC journalism is much better now than it was, describing the World Service he entered in the early 80s as an "overcautious, old-fashioned, complacent place." In the same period ITN News (now ITV) was "sharper, fleeter of foot, with better presentation" than BBC television news of the time. The introduction of specialist reporters, much care and the cash provided by the licence fee had transformed all that.

Nonetheless he confessed, "I do shout at the BBC when it displeases me." But then he always did in the sanctuary of his car. It was good therapy.

The BBC, Damazer said, frequently gets a bad press. In his view most of this "criticism industry" is driven by ideological prejudice or commercial rivalry or simply plenty of opportunities to lampoon the institution.

But there are issues on which "the editorial kicking has probably been justified too." (High) salaries should have been addressed much earlier. And, "of course BBC compliance bureaucracy can at times defy reason." He also questioned the wisdom of buying Lonely Planet books.

Damazer said he agreed with the conclusions of Professor Anthony King in 2008 that after the devolution process in the late 90s the BBC hadn't reported well enough on its effects in the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom. "We probably had ceased to be sensitive to differences within the UK on a range of policy issues," Damazer said.

Iraq and the confrontation with the Blair government over allegations of "sexed-up" documents was a "grisly" time . But Damazer feels that in years to come, "the whole horrible business will come to be seen as a significant example – perhaps THE significant example of the BBC's independence. Why? Partly, I suppose, blood was, very expensively, drawn." The Chairman and the Director General went.

"And then, of course, there were no weapons of mass destruction. And with every contribution to the debate and piece of evidence laid before the Chilcot inquiry it is getting harder and harder to argue that the dossier was not sexed up in ways several leagues beyond Lord Hutton's very limited definition of the term."

Other regrets included: a story involving the MMR vaccine and the suggestion that there was a causal link between it and autism; the aversion of BBC reporters, other than specialists, to properly analyse statistics and the failure to question politicians on them; bungled defence contracts hadn’t received the attention they deserved ; the “mistake” in the program about Live Aid; and  the "weakness" of sports journalism, outside of Five Live – how he wished for the fine writing, zest and passion of the best broadsheet sports pages.

Damazer was most passionate about Afghanistan and the paucity of serious BBC reporting after the initial invasion phase in 2001 (until 2006). And why was that? "Iraq sucked up all - or nearly all - the BBC's energies - and that was unsatisfactory. There was the occasional report – on the BBC and in the serious newspapers – which indicated that the enterprise was not going swimmingly - but nothing ...that really tipped the public off that it was going rather poorly." When Radio 4 finally launched an Afghan season in 2007/08 Damazer said it "went off with less conviction than necessary and made insufficient impact."

In the Reuters Instiute speech Damazer proferred  what he called a modest  initiative to assist 'in the pursuit of purity'. He suggested that three senior people outside the BBC but "sympathetic" to it should be asked to convene and review three or four major stories a year. Their deliberations would be separate from inquiries by the BBC Trust and would seek to make a serious assessment of the  coverage of  particular stories bearing in mind the need for accuracy, fairness and impartiality. Damazer said the object would  not be to cast blame for  misjudgements  but "it might throw up useful insights and prompt decent debate within the organisation." He insisted however that such reviews should not become "public sport" in the media and should be outside the scope of any Freedom of Information request.

It was also, Damazer said, important for the BBC to regularly have a "creative shot in the arm." This could be achieved by doubling or even trebling the 15 top university graduates currently being taken in each year. Top did not mean Oxbridge, nor a narrow focus on journalism students. The BBC should open its doors to the best talent available.

Answering questions at the end of his address Damazer said that he simply didn’t know how the BBC should go about cutting spending. But the obvious questions were, "Should BBC 4 and BBC 2 merge? If so what would the schedule look like?  Is BBC 3 viable – never mind the audience figures – show me the originality, show me the public service content which doesn’t need to be news and current affairs. Chris Patten (Chairman of the BBC) and co need to be piling on those questions hard against BBC management. But not if it seems to start with the presupposition that amputation is the only policy."

And finally some advice for government. "I urge the government to think of the BBC World Service as it does Andrew Mitchell's (Development Secretary) aid budget. It may not be vaccines, but the cutting-off of information to some audiences who can’t get decent news elsewhere is a mistake. Chris Patten’s weekend intervention suggests that when the BBC takes over the funding of the World Service there will be a real terms increase for it – but the cuts will have come first. More's the pity."

Listen to Marks' interview with Steve Hewlett on Radio 4's The Media Show (BBC iPlayer)

Read Mark's Comment Is Free piece in the Guardian.

Read the full text of Mark Damzer's lecture