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
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
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.