The Serota Review into editorial processes at the BBC has criticised its “ad-hoc” internal investigations that can leave staff too open to “hostile” media and audience backlash.
The review also identified perceptions from staff of a “culture of defensiveness” within the BBC around admitting its mistakes, even though it is “much more” open and transparent than it was 25 years ago.
The review was set up to examine whether failings at the BBC that allowed Martin Bashir’s “deceitful behaviour” in the lead-up to securing his Panorama interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, and the “woefully ineffective” BBC investigation into his actions, could happen again.
Overall, it said the BBC’s programmes, including Panorama, are now less isolated and autonomous with closer supervision and support.
The BBC has also improved its whistleblowing and investigative procedures – but more needs to be done to familiarise staff with formal whistleblowing channels and promote a culture in which staff feel comfortable raising concerns more informally with line managers.
“It will never be possible to eliminate entirely the risk that a rogue journalist circumvents editorial controls,” the review said.
“However, the guidelines, culture, safeguards and governance which are now in place mean that the risk of circumvention occurring and going unchecked has been reduced significantly in the last 25 years.”
One area that could use improvement, the review said, was internal investigations of editorial matters. It said this process was “ad-hoc”, not sufficiently transparent and not always independent enough from the division being investigated.
“Some investigations were too slow to gather the facts, leaving staff to manage hostile media and audience reaction,” it said, adding that sometimes, when BBC management has tried to speed up the process, it has not always ensured those involved were treated “consistently or fairly”.
Newsnight presenter Emily Maitlis, who was twice rebuked by the BBC on impartiality grounds since the pandemic began, has questioned why it was able to issue a statement against her in under 24 hours but took decades to fully investigate the Bashir matter. She also told Press Gazette she had not been told what was “journalistically inaccurate” about her monologue stating Dominic Cummings broke lockdown rules.
The review added that editors and presenters in the frontline are not always supported enough, lessons learned are not always shared across the BBC, and that it is not always clear whether and how individuals were made accountable.
The BBC said in response that it would set out a “simple and proportionate procedure” for dealing with internal investigations into potential breaches of its editorial guidelines, and that this would be independent from content-making decisions and have a non-BBC figure leading in the most serious cases.
It also said the director-general “must have the ability to act quickly and effectively in the best interests of the BBC, publishing the reasons for any intervention”.
The review, which heard from figures both inside and outside the BBC, also heard that “many” felt there was still a “culture of defensiveness” at the corporation that can lead it to take a position on an issue before the facts are clear.
“They suggested that there remains a tendency to rush into immediate defence of BBC content and an unwillingness to admit mistakes, especially in the face of external pressure,” the review said.
“Some feel that this is because public responsibility and scrutiny creates a heightened sense of anxiety about the BBC’s reputation which can lead to a defensive mindset. Others believe that the BBC appears to be defensive because it is regularly under attack and forced to defend itself from critics with a vested interest in undermining the BBC for commercial or ideological reasons.
“Concerns about leaks of sensitive information can also inhibit free and open discussion with BBC staff about editorial matters.”
Despite this it found the BBC is in general more open and accountable than it was 25 years ago, though this can be increased further.
The BBC has pledged to carry out and publish regular reviews of its content and programming to ensuring they are properly considering due impartiality in their processes. There will also be thematic reviews, starting next year by looking at the BBC’s coverage of UK public spending and taxation, to check editorial guidelines are being followed across the corporation on specific topics.
News and current affairs restructure
The review also raised concerns about the ongoing restructure to BBC News which will mean coverage is produced on a more centralised story basis rather than by silos and individual programme teams.
Story teams will provide content for multiple programmes, half of which are among hundreds of jobs are being moved outside London with, for example, the climate and science team going to Cardiff and the technology team to Glasgow.
The review raised fears the centralisation of story teams could amplify potential errors as their content will be re-used by multiple programmes whose staff will have limited scope for editing.
“In addition, there is a risk that plurality is diminished because fewer stories will be covered and a risk that accountability is reduced if it becomes less clear which team is responsible for upholding editorial standards in the output,” it said.
Concerns were also raised about the efficacy of editorial controls amid 450 staff cuts in the English regions with staff expected to deliver “the same volume of output with fewer people”. The review also suggested hybrid working could mean journalists are more removed from the informal support networks and supervision they would have in the newsroom.
The BBC said its editorial policy team will be strengthened to make sure it has “the capacity to provide advice and support to content-makers in a world where media formats and media consumption are changing fast, and where the BBC is itself radically changing the way it makes and distributes news content.
“The profile of the editorial policy team will be raised so that
programme-makers across the organisation know where to turn to for expert advice.”
A DCMS spokesperson said: “The BBC is in a privileged position as the UK’s leading public service broadcaster and we expect its journalists to adhere to the highest possible standards in recognition of the public funds it receives. We will consider the report’s findings carefully.”