Blowing the BBC’s Gaff

Book review of When One Door Closes by Peter Sissons

Books Media UK Politics
A hack's life: The young Peter Sissons interviews Leader of the Opposition Edward Heath, under the watchful eye of Sir Alec Douglas Home in 1967

How wonderfully appropriate that Peter Sissons’s memoirs should come from Biteback Publications. For, in writing them, he hasn’t just bitten the hand that fed him; he’s chewed off the whole arm — and he’s a messy eater.

Sissons worked for the BBC for 20 years and quite clearly hates the place and many, if not most, of the people who have run it.  He took the shilling — on his own account, oodles of shillings — but wealth and fame were not enough to reconcile him to the treacherous, backstabbing incompetents he had to work for there. And, finally — to coin a phrase —he’s settling all those scores.

It is a difficult trick to pull off; the King Lear of television news raging against the dying of the limelight. There are times when he just sounds grumpy and petulant; times when his iron-clad self regard becomes tiresome; many times when his sweeping condemnation of those trying to run what is an extraordinarily complex and pressurised organisation is desperately unfair.

But this bellow of rage from the elephants’ graveyard of broadcast journalism flattens some thoroughly deserving targets. That alone makes it worth reading, if you pay the licence fee, or care about news.

I ought to declare an interest. I have a walk-on part in his book and, while we were never close, he was a colleague I respected and reliably convivial company. Besides, I’m grumpy too.

It’s tempting to skip the early stuff: the ambitious and supportive mother, the Liverpool grammar school boy rubbing shoulders with three Beatles and Jimmy Tarbuck — Sissons is in the top tier of what passes for aristocracy in Liverpool — Oxford and the job at ITN “because we have too many public schoolboys on the payroll”.

His reporting career was drastically cut short almost before it began when he was machine-gunned in both legs during the Nigerian Civil War (paradoxically, the narrative comes to life when the author seems about to lose his). Thereafter he was confined to the picket line as ITN’s industrial editor at the zenith of the unions’ fortunes and, far from coincidentally, the nadir of the country’s. It was an important, if dreary, job (I know; I spent several miserable months as the BBC’s industrial correspondent at the same time). Sissons was good at it but was obviously grateful to come out of the cold to present Channel 4 News from its catastrophic early days to its later flowering as the programme everybody was supposed to admire and hardly anybody watched.  

The programme was built around him (it had few, if any, heavyweight television reporters). He was a brooding presence with a trenchant and abrasive interviewing style. These were the glory days for him, and for ITN. Then the BBC came sniffing with bags of gold.

John Birt, newly arrived at the BBC, offered to ditch both David Dimbleby and  John Cole, the BBC’s  splendid, if not always comprehensible, political editor if he would come over to front all the main events and run the BBC at Westminster. Sissons wisely declined, fearing the BBC political unit’s “world class backstabbers”.

Actually, the best could stab you in the front and not leave a mark. Thus, the following comment from John Sergeant to Robin Oakley, who had been recruited from the Times over his head to be political editor and had embarrassingly “dried” while live on the Nine O’Clock News: “Never mind, Robin, lots of us have almost done that.”

The next time they offered him Question Time and the Six O’Clock News. They even paid ITN a whopping “transfer fee” as well as his even more whopping salary. He went for it.

Question Time sounds a nightmare. It was a tedious, predictable hot-air balloon of a programme, invented to keep Robin Day out of mischief and to fill a sudden gap in the schedules. Following Sir Robin was never going to be easy — Sissons had the gravitas and the forensic skills, not the flamboyance — but the BBC made it impossible. His first editor he describes as breathtakingly two-faced; charming to his face but, behind his back, writing letters to viewers complaining about how inept he was. That he lasted in the chair through a four-year whispering campaign (and kept up the ratings) was heroism of a particularly BBC kind.

When he finally left Question Time, he was stuck with newscasting, a non-job if ever there was one. However eminent a journalist the newscaster may be, he or she can never do more than fiddle with the edges of the main BBC bulletins. Sissons had plenty of time to look around him and dislike what he saw.

He doesn’t quite skewer the complicated issue of the BBC’s supposed institutional bias. What the BBC regards as normal and abnormal, what is moderate or extreme, where the centre of gravity of an issue lies, are conditioned by the common set of assumptions held by the people who work for it. These are uniformly middle class, well educated, living in north London, or maybe its Manchester equivalent. Urban, bright thirty-somethings with a pleasing record of achievement in a series of institutions, school, university, BBC, with little experience of — and perhaps not very well disguised contempt for — business, industry, the countryside, localness, traditions and politicians. The Guardian is their bible and political correctness their creed. In the Corporation’s collective eye, Tony Benn is a lovable national treasure, Melanie Phillips a swivel-eyed fanatic. It’s all very well-meaning, and painstakingly even-handed, but often notably adrift of the overriding national sentiment.

Sissons bowls over the other targets like a crusty old farmer shooting rabbits. Autocuties, “Elf ‘n’ Safety”, the Corporation’s now pathological aversion to risk of any kind, its culture of conformity, its vulnerability to political pressure, its uncritical love affair with environmentalism, the callow opinionising of some of its reporters, the flatulent masses of its middle management and, as he sees it, the BBC’s complete lack of leadership. Bang, bang, bang.

It’s not entirely fair. Some of our bosses, Ron Neil, Tony Hall, Mark Damazer, Richard Sambrook, Helen Boaden, Mark Thompson himself, have been extraordinarily bright, decent and effective. Of course, there were, and are, plenty of totally transparent tossers. The BBC’s difficulty is that it has never been able to tell the difference. In any case, it is the institution that increasingly seems to be the problem.

Sissons was finally shipwrecked by the Queen Mother, caught holding the parcel when she died, inconveniently, over a weekend when he had hardly any backup and the BBC, after a hundred rehearsals, had no plan. It wasn’t as bad as it was subsequently painted, but feline empathy is not his strongest suit and the burgundy tie didn’t help.

He was put out to the empty pastures of 24-hour news, a juicy target he disappointingly spares, and left to choose his own time to canter down to the knackers’ yard and explode. The BBC is not as rudderless, its management not quite as spineless, its employees not quite as contemptuous of them as he makes out. But he is too good a reporter not to get a lot of it right. For those of us who love the place, and what it should stand for, these are worrying times.