When James Harding was Editor of The Times he was a decent man who made some bad journalistic decisions. Now he has moved on to head BBC News he is still making bad journalistic decisions and his sense of decency appears to have deserted him.
Reporters remember him as the equivalent of Dick Rowe, the talentspotter who refused to sign the Beatles because “guitar groups were on the way out”. Harding might have had the MPs’ expenses scandal, the scoop of the last decade. He might have exposed how politicians, who passed punitive laws to discipline their constituents, fiddled their expenses and home allowances with a riotous disregard for propriety and the criminal law. A source had collected tens of thousands of expense claims, and offered Harding the evidence to stand up a report which would transform British politics. Harding refused to pay for the information or touch the story. Instead, Tony Gallagher of the Telegraph took the glory of breaking one of the greatest instances of public-interest journalism anyone can remember.
You might have thought that, for Harding, that would have been that. Anything but. The BBC recruited him as its Head of News — a far more important job than editing one of Britain’s declining newspapers.
The BBC’s decision was not as perverse as it seemed. Harding got on well with Times journalists, who were genuinely sorry to see him leave. He had refused to bend the knee to Rupert Murdoch, which again spoke well of his character. Most important for the BBC, his refusal to run the expenses scandal did him no harm in its eyes. Because it is state-funded, the BBC cannot break the biggest stories, whether MPs’ corrupt expenses or an exposé of state surveillance, as the Guardian did. Politicians would hold the BBC liable. They would not accept that it was reporting facts. They would blame the messenger and say that the BBC rather than MPs or GCHQ had created the scandal. The Director-General would be finished, and the BBC’s funding would be threatened.
The restriction is not as onerous as it seems. The BBC follows up other people’s stories well. Panorama produces excellent investigations of its own, which may not be earth-shattering but are important nevertheless. Despite an outrageous attempt to silence it from the supposedly impartial Attorney-General, who was looking to recommend the Tory Party to Rupert Murdoch before an election, last month Panorama ran an exposé of News International’s “fake sheikh” Mazher Mahmood, some of whose dubious claims the Metropolitan Police had taken for reputable evidence. BBC television and more importantly BBC radio, meanwhile, produce a vast amount of honest, straightforward news reporting under conditions which guarantee its probity.
I would not have raised Harding’s decision to run away from the expenses scandal had he not arrived at Broadcasting House and — true to form — attacked the investigative and straight news reporting which make the BBC an essential institution.
He first hit the BBC’s probity by appointing a string of associates to well-remunerated posts, without formal interviews by a BBC board. The BBC’s requirement that recruitment should be open is, among other things, a protection against cronyism and sexual harassment of women. Harding tossed that requirement aside. While BBC reporters were airing discussions on the decline of social mobility in public, their own head of news was building a chumocracy in private. More seriously, he hit the very programmes that make the BBC worthwhile.
No one should think that Harding or any other BBC manager has an easy life. The coalition cut its funding by 25 per cent and dumped on the BBC the cost of paying for the World Service. There have to be savings, but the target of the cuts tells you much about Harding’s priorities.
He announced that 415 front-line journalists would go. He wanted to fire all of Panorama‘s presenters and replace them with soft journalists who were easy on the eye, such as Fiona Bruce, best known for presenting that hardest of hard news shows, Antiques Roadshow.
He hit BBC radio journalism with ferocity, even though BBC radio is not only remarkably successful but the only reputable source of news anywhere on the British airwaves. He diverted funds to the high-profile but vainglorious and failing Newsnight to no avail. Internal auditors found waste and inefficiency and ordered an end to the extravagance. The chaos Harding created forced the Director-General, Tony Hall, to intervene. My sources in BBC News tell me that now no one knows who is in charge, what they are doing or where they are going.
The disarray at the BBC matters more than it seems. Writing in the age of totalitarianism, George Orwell said, “In a time of universal deceit — telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Mutatis mutandis, the same applies today. New communications technologies create spaces for conspiracy theorists, the propaganda channels of authoritarian states — most notably Russia and Iran — and of political extremists — most notably the Tea Party enthusiasts of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News — while destroying the business plans of serious newspapers trying to tell the truth.
Beyond broadcasting there are 4.6 PRs for every working American journalist, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They work to protect corporate and political interests, and manufacture fake news that suits their paymasters. In Britain, the ratio does not seem so bad, but the official definition of a journalist includes online commentators whom no reporter would regard as colleagues. Beyond dedicated propagandists, the internet allows surfers to live in bubbles and avoid all information that might challenge them.
In a report on the incessant lying of Putin’s Russia Today channel, Michael Weiss and Peter Pomerantsev of the Institute of Modern Russia quote a prescient Indian-American academic (and former Times journalist) Tunku Varadarajan: “There’s an abandonment of the need for persuasion as everyone is in their own archipelago. The decline of the need for public debate can transmogrify into the need not to tell the truth.”
I am no BBC groupie. But I can see that it is filled with journalists who try, however imperfectly, to put facts on the record that can counter the screams of dictators and religious fanatics, the smoothly packaged lies of the PR men, and the fantasies of the paranoid. If James Harding cannot protect and encourage them, if he does not understand the importance of the institution he so recklessly manages, then he has to go.