It led the Six O’Clock and Ten O’Clock News, was trailered in advance of Newsnight and dominated the Today programme, which even called on ex-DG and current ITV head, Michael Grade, to attack the organisation he deserted.
Almost uniquely for media apologies, the BBC’s grovelling dwarfed the original story. The core strategy appeared to be that if you said sorry loudly and often enough, then sins would be cleansed. At the same time, the spinners took the view that if the hapless Peter Fincham, controller of BBC1, repeated enough times that he took full responsibility for the error, then he wouldn’t actually have to do just that by resigning.
Underpinning the extravaganza of apologia was a spookily Stalinist strategy of somehow creating distance between the BBC as the perpetrator of the error and the BBC which was reporting it as the major story of the week. This was reinforced by the surreal vision of the BBC’s ranks of media correspondents and current affairs interrogators lining up to give their bosses the fifth degree.
The PR failed on almost every count. Print media piled into the excesses of the licence payer-funded Beeb, echoing its ever-growing calls for greater responsibility and fewer subsidies.
It was left to newspapers to reveal that the apology ran a full day after the error was pointed out, thus destroying any idea of spontaneity or regret.
Altogether, viewers’ perceptions of TV in general as untrustworthy and exploitative – following the recent phone line scandals – were reinforced.
Good PR means doing the right thing rather than merely saying it. In this instance, the man responsible should have fallen on his sword immediately. His resignation and the corporation’s apology should have been run immediately at the top of bulletins. And it should have lacked the bizarre mix of analysis and mock remorse.
Instead, the BBC has guaranteed that its news soap of error and apology – a grotesque kind of ‘East Errors’ – will run and run by offering an amnesty to programme makers to fess up to other instances where they might have misled viewers.
The serious issue for broadcasters is the dwindling level of viewer trust. The danger is the blurring of lines between what should be TV content and the stunts and trickery of infotainment dominating the internet. If TV cannot reassert its integrity, communicators face major challenges in connecting with their audiences in the digital age.
Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly a senior newspaper executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun