Peter Sissons – Daily Mail January 25, 2011
My time as a news and current affairs anchor at the BBC was characterised by weak leadership and poor direction from the top, but hand in hand with this went the steady growth of political correctness.
Indeed, it was almost certainly the Corporation’s unchallengeable PC culture that made strong leadership impossible.
Leadership — one person being in charge, trusting his or her own judgment, taking a decision and telling others what to do— was shied away from in favour of endless meetings of a dozen or more people trying to arrive at some sort of consensus.
At the newsroom level it became impossible to discipline someone for basic journalistic mistakes — wrong dates, times and numbers, inaccurate on-screen captions and basic political or geographical facts — for fear of giving offence. You’d never see anyone, to use a technical term, get a b*****king.
There’d be whispers about them. They might even get a black mark at the annual appraisal with their line manager. Sometimes, they might even be promoted to a position in which they could do less harm.
But what really concerned me was when the culture of political correctness began to influence what appeared on the screen. Soon after I started on News 24 in 2003, the aircraft carrier Ark Royal returned from the Gulf to a traditional welcome from families and friends at Portsmouth. TV reporters closed in to interview crew members, the vast majority of whom were men.
Of the five vox-pops that featured in the BBC News, four were with women sailors. During my stint of presenting that day I complained about this and asked if we could have some more balanced interviews, but in vain.
I have always been in two minds about the value of vox-pops. They can give texture and interest to a story, but unless they are selected with scrupulous impartiality by a conscientious producer, they are worse than a waste of time — the viewer is deceived, as they were that day.
For me, though, the most worrying aspect of political correctness was over the story that recurred with increasing frequency during my last ten years at the BBC — global warming (or ‘climate change’, as it became known when temperatures appeared to level off or fall slightly after 1998).
From the beginning I was unhappy at how one-sided the BBC’s coverage of the issue was, and how much more complicated the climate system was than the over-simplified two-minute reports that were the stock-in-trade of the BBC’s environment correspondents.
These, without exception, accepted the UN’s assurance that ‘the science is settled’ and that human emissions of carbon dioxide threatened the world with catastrophic climate change. Environmental pressure groups could be guaranteed that their press releases, usually beginning with the words ‘scientists say . . . ’ would get on air unchallenged.
On one occasion, after the inauguration of Barack Obama as president in 2009, the science correspondent of Newsnight actually informed viewers ‘scientists calculate that he has just four years to save the world’. What she didn’t tell viewers was that only one alarmist scientist, NASA’s James Hansen, had said that.
My interest in climate change grew out of my concern for the failings of BBC journalism in reporting it. In my early and formative days at ITN, I learned that we have an obligation to report both sides of a story. It is not journalism if you don’t. It is close to propaganda.
The BBC’s editorial policy on climate change, however, was spelled out in a report by the BBC Trust — whose job is to oversee the workings of the BBC in the interests of the public — in 2007. This disclosed that the BBC had held ‘a high-level seminar with some of the best scientific experts and has come to the view that the weight of evidence no longer justifies equal space being given to the opponents of the consensus’.
The error here, of course, was that the BBC never at any stage gave equal space to the opponents of the consensus.
But the Trust continued its pretence that climate change dissenters had been, and still would be, heard on its airwaves. ‘Impartiality,’ it said, ‘always requires a breadth of view, for as long as minority opinions are coherently and honestly expressed, the BBC must give them appropriate space.’
In reality, the ‘appropriate space’ given to minority views on climate change was practically zero.
Moreover, we were allowed to know practically nothing about that top-level seminar mentioned by the BBC Trust at which such momentous conclusions were reached. Despite a Freedom of Information request, they wouldn’t even make the guest list public.
There is one brief account of the proceedings, written by a conservative commentator who was there. He wrote subsequently that he was far from impressed with the 30 key BBC staff who attended. None of them, he said, showed ‘even a modicum of professional journalistic curiosity on the subject’. None appeared to read anything on the subject other than the Guardian.
This attitude was underlined a year later in another statement: ‘BBC News currently takes the view that their reporting needs to be calibrated to take into account the scientific consensus that global warming is man-made.’ Those scientists outside the ‘consensus’ waited in vain for the phone to ring.
It’s the lack of simple curiosity about one of the great issues of our time that I find so puzzling about the BBC. When the topic first came to prominence, the first thing I did was trawl the internet to find out as much as possible about it.
Anyone who does this with a mind not closed by religious fervour will find a mass of material by respectable scientists who question the orthodoxy. Admittedly, they are in the minority, but scepticism should be the natural instinct of scientists — and the default setting of journalists.
Yet the cream of the BBC’s inquisitors during my time there never laid a glove on those who repeated the mantra that ‘the science is settled’. On one occasion, an MP used BBC airtime to link climate change doubters with perverts and holocaust deniers, and his famous interviewer didn’t bat an eyelid.
Meanwhile, Al Gore, the former U.S. Vice-President and climate change campaigner, entertained the BBC’s editorial elite in his suite at the Dorchester and was given a free run to make his case to an admiring internal audience at Television Centre.
His views were never subjected to journalistic scrutiny, even when a British High Court judge ruled that his film, An Inconvenient Truth, contained at least nine scientific errors, and that ministers must send new guidance to teachers before it was screened in schools. From the BBC’s standpoint, the judgment was the real inconvenience, and its environment correspondents downplayed its significance.
At the end of November 2007 I was on duty on News 24 when the UN panel on climate change produced a report which later turned out to contain significant inaccuracies, many stemming from its reliance on non-peer reviewed sources and best-guesses by environmental activists.
But the way the BBC’s reporter treated the story was as if it was beyond a vestige of doubt, the last word on the catastrophe awaiting mankind. The most challenging questions addressed to a succession of UN employees and climate activists were ‘How urgent is it?’ and ‘How much danger are we in?’
Back in the studio I suggested that we line up one or two sceptics to react to the report, but received a totally negative response, as if I was some kind of lunatic. I went home and wrote a note to myself: ‘What happened to the journalism? The BBC has completely lost it.’
A damaging episode illustrating the BBC’s supine attitude came in 2008, when the BBC’s ‘environment analyst’, Roger Harrabin, wrote a piece on the BBC website reporting some work by the World Meteorological Organization that questioned whether global warming was going to continue at the rate projected by the UN panel.
A green activist, Jo Abbess, emailed him to complain. Harrabin at first resisted. Then she berated him: ‘It would be better if you did not quote the sceptics’ — something Harrabin had not actually done — ‘Please reserve the main BBC online channel for emerging truth. Otherwise I would have to conclude that you are insufficiently educated to be able to know when you have been psychologically manipulated.’
Did Harrabin tell her to get lost? He tweaked the story — albeit not as radically as she demanded — and emailed back: ‘Have a look and tell me you are happier.’
This exchange went round the world in no time, spread by a jubilant Abbess. Later, Harrabin defended himself, saying they were only minor changes — but the sense of the changes, as specifically sought by Ms Abbess, was plainly to harden the piece against the sceptics.
Many people wouldn’t call that minor, but Harrabin’s BBC bosses accepted his explanation.
The sense of entitlement with which green groups regard the BBC was brought home to me when what was billed as a major climate change rally was held in London on a miserable, wintry, wet day.
I was on duty on News 24 and it had been arranged for me to interview the leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas. She clearly expected, as do most environmental activists, what I call a ‘free hit’ — to be allowed to say her piece without challenge.
I began, good naturedly, by observing that the climate didn’t seem to be playing ball at the moment, and that we were having a particularly cold winter while carbon emissions were powering ahead.
Miss Lucas reacted as if I’d physically molested her. She was outraged. It was no job of the BBC — the BBC! — to ask questions like that. Didn’t I realise that there could be no argument over the science?
I persisted with a few simple observations of fact, such as there appeared to have been no warming for ten years, in contradiction of all the alarmist computer models.
A listener from one of the sceptical climate-change websites noted that ‘Lucas was virtually apoplectic and demanding to know how the BBC could be making such comments. Sissons came back that his role as a journalist was always to review all sides. Lucas finished with a veiled warning, to which Sissons replied with an “Ooh!”’
A week after this interview, I went into work and picked up my mail from my pigeon hole. Among the envelopes was a small Jiffy Bag, which I opened. It contained a substantial amount of faeces wrapped in several sheets of toilet paper.
At the time no other interviewers on the BBC — or indeed on ITV News or Channel Four News — had asked questions about climate change which didn’t start from the assumption that the science was settled
I’m glad to say that more recently a number of colleagues have started to tiptoe on to the territory that was for so long off-limits. After the abortive Copenhagen climate summit and the Climategate scandal at the University of East Anglia, a questioning note was injected into some BBC reports. But even then, leading ‘sceptics’ were still generally regarded with disdain and kept at arm’s length.
I eventually gave up trying to persuade the head of the newsroom that there was something wrong with the BBC’s climate change coverage, and became involved in another argument with him. This was over a mandatory course for all 17,000 of the BBC’s production and content staff, called ‘Safeguarding Trust’.
The course had been set up in response to a series of scandals that involved the deception of BBC viewers and listeners. There had been a misuse of telephone voting in various competitions.
Most embarrassingly, a TV trailer was edited in a way that misrepresented the behaviour of the Queen.
The course was produced by the BBC’s new College of Journalism and involved a two-hour seminar, at which groups of BBC personnel would be lectured about what conduct was acceptable and what was unacceptable for BBC programme makers, journalists and presenters.
I resisted taking part, arguing that I had been hired by the BBC for reasons that certainly included being able to judge what was acceptable conduct.
I pointed out that it was written into my contract that I would do nothing to bring the BBC into disrepute, and that if I did they could always show me the door.
In truth, I found it demoralising, after all those years in the business, to be lectured about journalistic ethics. At ITN when I was there, I don’t remember having to be taught that writers and reporters should be accurate and balanced, and at all times act ethically. That was taken as read.
I delayed and prevaricated for many months and ignored deadline after deadline, until finally I was informed in a letter delivered to my home that until I completed the Safeguarding Trust course, I was suspended from news presenting.
It was an ultimatum — attend the course, or you’re sacked. Not being ready to retire just yet, I drove up to London to comply.
When I walked into the office at TV Centre where my session would take place, there was a stir of interest among the training staff. Apparently mine was the very last box they had to tick. I was astonished to be told that even such experienced and respected BBC figures as John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman had been dragooned into taking it. Oh, and also Andrew Neil, whose experience editing the Sunday Times was judged to be no substitute.
My mentor for the course, a fine journalist who was actually a good friend of mine, was apologetic about the content, much of which was blindingly obvious, and we got through it in record time. To this day I can’t remember a thing about it. It was the only course I ever went on in my career — though there were some near misses.
A glass of water on your desk? No, that’s far too dangerous
Soon after I joined the Nine O’clock News, I received a memo asking me to attend a half-day ‘studio safety’ course. I ignored it and presumed that would be the end of it.
But directives to go on any kind of BBC course are just that, and have extra weight if they concern Health and Safety. Memo after memo followed, each one more threatening, until I was called in to see my line manager.
He was clearly embarrassed but said I just had to go, and would I stop being awkward? It was then explained to me the modern news studio was a complicated place technically (I’d never have guessed) and that there were a number of potential hazards — robotic cameras, for example, and glasses of water on the newscasters’ desk.
Apparently, although it has never happened, the robotic cameras had the potential to go out of control and could inflict a nasty injury. As for the glassware, if it broke it might just cut the wrists of an unaware presenter.
Curious, I asked what was being done about these dangers. I was told that there was a red emergency switch in the studio that immobilised the cameras, and that glassware was being replaced with plastic cups, which were to be kept out of vision.
Proper water glasses would be available only for discussion programmes, when it might be aesthetically pleasing to have them in shot. The floor manager would receive a special payment for handling them.
Thus briefed, I asked what was the point of me going on the course now I knew all I was going to learn from it. Answer came there none and I heard no more of the matter.
I had another run-in with the BBC Health and Safety establishment when I visited the marginal constituency of Gravesend during the 1997 general election campaign. The day before, I was approached by a clipboard-carrier who asked if I had been on the Operational Hazards course. No course, no Gravesend.
My wife and I used to go shopping in Gravesend. We’d never felt in danger there. Ah, I was told, but you’ve never been to Gravesend with a film crew. All those trailing wires. A list of hazards came out that made Gravesend sound like Gaza City.
Ignoring all this, I drove to Gravesend, met my crew and did the job. I mentioned my Health and Safety encounter to the cameraman, who pulled out a three-page Hazard Assessment form he’d had to fill in.
There were scores of boxes to tick identifying potential disasters including Diving Operations, Hydraulic Hoists, Animals, Children, Derelict Buildings, Excavations, Glass, Physical Exertion, Abnormal Stress, Manual Lifting, Falling Objects and Inexperienced Performer.
Most BBC employees know the value of working in a safe environment, but most also think the BBC Health and Safety culture, born of the best intentions, has become an expensive joke. If you put ‘Ministry of Defence Health and Safety’ in Google, it gives you 693,000 references. Put in ‘BBC Health and Safety’ and you get an astonishing 1,300,000.
Extracted from When One Door Closes by Peter Sissons, published on February 2 by Biteback Publishing at £17.99. © Peter Sissons 2011.
To order a copy at £14.99 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720.