MEDIA: Familiarity breeds contempt for investigative journalism

The BBC’s controversial decision not to transmit an attack on British Airways and its business practices has particular piquancy for readers of this column. Just three magic words: Sir Tim Bell.

The BBC’s controversial decision not to transmit an attack on British

Airways and its business practices has particular piquancy for readers

of this column. Just three magic words: Sir Tim Bell.



As public relations adviser to BA and, until recently, the top echelon

of the BBC, he is surely the only winner in this sorry tale of wasted

licence fee-payer’s money and, perhaps, censorship.



His effectiveness as a fixer has been illuminated by the indignant tone

of articles in the Observer and the Guardian. This episode is a victory

for aggressive PR, and will rebound badly for the BBC, which seems to

have been less than robust.



But the investigative film, withheld from Newsnight, comes from a

particular source. Freelance Martyn Gregory is an experienced ex-BBC

journalist and expert critic of Bntish Airways and its business

practices. He is a troublesome thorn in the side of BA, and relishes the

label of ‘that despicable man’ pinned on him by Bell.



The friction between Virgin and British Airways has given him rich

material for a stream of investigative films for both ITV and the BBC,

and a book (reissued in paperback this month). These include a first

Newsnight film in 1994 on the alleged dirty tricks campaign run by the

world’s biggest airline and the bizarre treatment meted out to a

passenger, John Gorman, who swallowed glass while imbibing an in-flight

drink. It is a follow-up to this which has been pulled.



Strangest of all is the Corporation’s decision to take outside expert

legal opinion without involving the journalist in that basic question:

what needs to be done to change or improve the material to ensure

airtime.



There have been mutterings about the impact an alleged friendship beween

John Birt, director general of the BBC, and Robert Ayling, chief

executive of British Airways could have had. This is a red herring. The

real problem is that Birt has been the all-powerful head of BBC

joumalism for ten years. Executives in the News and Current Affairs

directorate seem unhealthily cemented in their posts, fearful of taking

risks. The mission to explain can all too easily become the mission to

manage.



I don’t think this incident spells the end of investigative journalism

on the BBC - this week’s Panorama on Dunblane was splendid. But it has

always been a fraught practice: one arm of a quintessentially

establishment body investigating another.



More worrying is the fact that Gregory was pulled off a second Newsnight

film on the proposed mega-merger of British Airways and American

Airlines. We’re talking ticket prices here. He should rush round to

Channel 4. And the BBC should re-establish its credentials by setting a

trusted staffer on the story.



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