Monday, May 20, 2024
HomenewsJOHN HUMPHRYS: What I told Huw over lunch about what it takes to...

JOHN HUMPHRYS: What I told Huw over lunch about what it takes to be a trusted face of the BBC

Imagine you are the commander of a mission into space. The engines of the mighty rocket have been ignited and, in a few seconds, the four humans inside will soar into the heavens. That rocket is one of the most sophisticated pieces of engineering ever created. Countless components must do what they were designed to do: Otherwise those humans may perish.

Then imagine one of the leaders of one of the many teams that designed those components reveals he is worried about one of the instruments. What do you do? Halt the launch just in case? The cost would be breathtaking and anyway the odds against it proving a deadly fault are overwhelming. So the launch goes ahead.

Now imagine you are the director-general of the BBC. A ludicrous parallel? Well, the DG too has enormous responsibilities and, just like the launch commander, he relies upon a backroom team to make judgments about which of the many flashing lights in the BBC circuitry should be brought to his attention. It’s impossible for him to deal with all of them himself.

The BBC gets roughly half a million complaints every year, ranging from the absurdly trivial, like the colour of a presenter’s tie, to more serious editorial issues.

But – as we were all reminded this week – lurking among them may be one that poses an existential threat to the organisation and that could blow the whole enterprise to smithereens.

Huw Edwards: A man held in such huge esteem by the majority of the population that the only question hanging over his future was how soon he would be awarded a knighthood Huw Edwards: A man held in such huge esteem by the majority of the population that the only question hanging over his future was how soon he would be awarded a knighthood

Huw Edwards: A man held in such huge esteem by the majority of the population that the only question hanging over his future was how soon he would be awarded a knighthood

This is the category into which the fiasco of the past few days has sometimes seemed to fall.

At the heart of it, of course, has been Huw Edwards: A man held in such huge esteem by the majority of the population that the only question hanging over his future was how soon he would be awarded a knighthood.

Now the question is whether we shall ever see him on our screens again. That will depend on the outcome of the BBC investigation and whether the nation accepts that his bizarre alleged behaviour in recent months and years was related to the mental illness for which he is now being treated in hospital.

As someone who has known Huw for much of his broadcasting career, I can’t pretend that I saw this coming. It would have been hard to find anyone more locked into BBC standards of behaviour.

In 2003, a few days after it was announced that he was taking over the BBC’s News at Ten, Huw invited me to lunch. I had been the first journalist – as opposed to the previous ‘announcers’ – to present the news when it was broadcast at 9pm and he wanted to pick my brains. I’m afraid, cynical old hack that I am, I was a little flippant. I adopted a mock-serious tone and said: ‘The responsibility is awesome. You’ll be seen as a massive figure of authority – and your words will be treated with reverence.’

What I did not say was that the job of a newsreader is to look presentable and to read from an autocue in a reasonably credible manner that tells the audience two things: You understand what you are reading and you appreciate its significance or triviality.

Davie is sent a 'red-flag list' twice a week, largely about programmes that might cause the BBC some harm Davie is sent a 'red-flag list' twice a week, largely about programmes that might cause the BBC some harm

Davie is sent a ‘red-flag list’ twice a week, largely about programmes that might cause the BBC some harm

I expected Huw to laugh at my pomposity. Instead, he slammed his hand on the table.

‘John,’ he said, ‘I know exactly what you mean!’

And why shouldn’t he have said that? He took the job desperately seriously and the audience respected him for it.

You will note that I use the past tense. It is, of course, possible that Huw will leave hospital free from whatever devils of depression and deception have seemingly been haunting him for so long. Perhaps, after a suitable period of rehabilitation, he will return to his old job. Possible – but surely unlikely.

Why? Because one word sums up a news presenter’s relationship with the nation. Trust. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for many to watch him again without recalling the events of these past weeks. What’s more, BBC management would have to declare their total faith in him.

Which takes me back to where I began: The role of mission control or, in the case of the BBC, the director-general, Tim Davie and the system that he inherited.

John Humphrys (pictured) recalls a conversation he had with Huw Edwards about being the face of the BBC John Humphrys (pictured) recalls a conversation he had with Huw Edwards about being the face of the BBC

John Humphrys (pictured) recalls a conversation he had with Huw Edwards about being the face of the BBC

As DG, Davie is sent a ‘red-flag list’ twice a week, largely about programmes that might cause the BBC some harm – sensitive investigations, for example, or a report on China’s policy towards the Uyghurs that will inevitably cause offence.

The complaints system has different red flags. Initial contact – usually via an online form – is largely filtered through the Capita organisation. It is meant to pass on the more difficult issues to BBC Audience Services, which might also label a complaint a ‘red flag’ if it involves coverage of the person who is actually complaining, or a complaint that might be deemed particularly sensitive.

Typically, at any one time about 250 complaints are being dealt with by the corporate invest- igations team headed by an ex-Scotland Yard officer. That’s what happened in Huw Edwards’s case – and yet clearly something went badly awry.

There seems to be a pattern here. Ten years ago, I was at the heart of what was then described as the BBC’s greatest crisis. I had interviewed the then-DG George Entwistle about a Newsnight report the previous evening that had accused Lord McAlpine, a widely respected figure and treasurer of the Tory party, of being involved in paedophilia at a children’s home. The more I pressed Entwistle on the accuracy of the report, the more he was forced to admit that he had been unaware of the allegations.

McAlpine was entirely innocent. But nobody in the director-general’s team had even brought to his attention the fact that the Newsnight report was going to run. A few hours after my interview with him, Entwistle resigned. He had been director-general for just 54 days.

There have been other great scandals in which the BBC was unwittingly complicit. Undoubtedly the greatest was Jimmy Savile. We now know him to have been a thoroughly wicked individual but his exposure came too late to stop him preying on countless defenceless children for his own perverted sexual gratification.

Even during his life, however, rumours were rife about his behaviour – rumours that could and should have alerted senior figures at the BBC.

The scandal of Martin Bashir, who achieved great fame for his 1995 Panorama interview with Princess Diana, was to blacken the reputation of a former director-general, who was head of news at the time. It took many years for Bashir’s disgraceful tactics to be fully uncovered.

Who knows what might have happened in all those crises if the BBC’s command-and-control system had been more alert to the worries that many were voicing and the whispers so many were hearing? And had then alerted the man at the top to the dangers.

Now the question is whether we shall ever see him on our screens again Now the question is whether we shall ever see him on our screens again

Now the question is whether we shall ever see him on our screens again

From this perspective, you would have to say that Tim Davie was badly let down by the BBC system over the Huw Edwards crisis. It seems nobody saw fit to inform him as soon as the original complaint was made by the mother of the young person she alleged was paid many thousands in exchange for revealing photographs. The BBC staff responsible for handling complaints did alarmingly little for six or seven weeks to discover what was going on.

Only two attempts were made to contact the mother: Once by phone and once by email. When he was asked if that was appropriate, Davie said he himself had questions about what could be learned from the whole process. One of them, he said, was: ‘Do we raise the red flags quick enough?’

Which takes me back to my analogy with a space mission. Any organisation – whether its purpose is to send a human into space or to earn the trust of a nation through the way its journalists do their job – can be only as good as its component parts.

Back in 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space. When reporters asked him what he was thinking as he sat atop his rocket, waiting for lift-off, he replied: ‘The fact that every part of this ship was built by the lowest bidder.’

He might have added: ‘And I’m praying that there’s somebody out there keeping a very close eye on everything they do and warning mission control if something’s looking a bit suspect.’

That’s what the BBC needs to avoid these scandals. A more effective mission control.

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