The BBC today: is it honest and competent?

Tony Blair becomes a Catholic

Maxine Mawhinney informed viewers of BBC News 24 in December 2007 that Tony Blair, the ex-prime minister of Britain, had converted to to Catholicism.

She added: “Cardinal Basil Hume is expected to issue a statement later today.” Cardinal Hume had died in 1999.

Newsnight on Northern Rock

On 16th November 2007, Newsnight’s Paul Mason presented a report on Northern Rock, the UK bank which was rescued by state funding after it couldn’t pay off depositors who had asked for their money back. Mason introduced his report with raucous music. He should have spent his time checking his facts rather than looking for an inappropriate music track.

Mason then claimed that Northern Rock’s interest bill on its loans from the Bank of England totalled ВЈ2 billion. The Bank of England had been charging interest at a rate of about 7% per annum on the emergency funding for only two months. The average loan outstanding was about ВЈ10 billion. There is no way the interest bill would be anywhere near ВЈ2 billion – it would not be even a tenth of that. But Mason plastered ВЈ2 billion across the screen and his report and stated that was the amount of interest without applying any elementary checks. The figure of ВЈ2 billion had been published in some London newspapers a few days before. Had the Newsnight dunce just copied it without checking?

Then Gavin Esler interviewed two studio guests including Will Hutton, introduced as a leading economist. Will Hutton a leading economist? Hutton was taught economics at school but that hardly makes him an economist let alone a leading one.

Hutton had heard that the CEO of Northern Rock and several directors were resigning. In fact, the new chairman, Bryan Sanderson, was not resigning. Adam Applegarth, the CEO would not be leaving until 2008 and Dave Jones the finance director was not resigning. Sir Ian Gibson and Michael Queen were not resigning as non-executive directors. The non-executive directors who had resigned were being replaced and the three executive directors who were resigning as directors were continuing in their executive roles at Northern Rock.

However, Hutton claimed that the “authorities” would be forced to announce a rescue deal over the weekend due to the resignations. [The closing date for offers for Northern Rock was on the day of the Newsnight item and some offers had been submitted.]

Hutton spluttered: “That [the board resignations] puts a lot of heat on the authorities. It means there’s gonna be a deal this Saturday and Sunday announced before Monday because if not Northern Rock on Monday morning will be an institution without a board.”

Hutton then said that if there were no deal announced during the weekend of 17th and 18th November then an acting CEO would have to be appointed on Monday “and there would be even more serious problems for Northern Rock” which he went on to list.

Esler then turned to his other guest, Professor Willem Buiter, and asked him if he broadly agreed with that. “Yes,” said Buiter.

Newsnight should not be broadcasting reports with elementary errors. And it should not be interviewing people who do not have a grasp of the subject under discussion.

A crying shame

On 15th November, the BBC became embroiled in another fakery row. This time news staff added the sounds of babies crying to footage of quintuplets born to a Russian woman.

The five girls were born the previous weekend at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. The hospital distributed clips of the quintuplets, their mother and her husband on VT with no audio.

BBC news staff then found some old audio of babies crying, added it to the VT and broadcast the VT and the fake audio until someone spotted the babies all had respirators in their mouths.

Newsnight’s report on the UK “credit crisis”

Newsnight presented a criticism of the Bank of England governor Mervyn King and chancellor of the exchequer Alistair Darling on 6th November 2007 for its handling of of recent problems in the banking industry in particular by “squashing” a Lloyds Bank acquisition of Northern Rock.

Newsnight reporter Paul Mason stated that the UK was suffering from a “credit crisis” and claimed that that Darling had “squashed” Lloyds Bank’s tentative takeover of Northern Rock without disclosing that Lloyds had asked the government for billions of state financing for the acquisition and the government had merely declined to refuse to provide this just as they would decline to provide financing for other private companies. The government had not “squashed” any bid from Lloyds Bank.

And which high-flying City grandee had the BBC found to provide clips saying that the Bank of England should not concern itself with inflation, moral hazard or prudent central banking? Well – none of them. They only came up with Clem Chambers, who runs a website called, which lists share prices.

Chambers said that when things are as bad as they are now then the government should bail out companies with problems. “Moral hazard has to go out of the window and government and regulators have to get together and protect the system,” he claimed.

If the situation was as bad as Mason was claiming how come the best he could get to appear on his report and say government cash should be used to bail out private sector failures was Chambers? Where were the senior bank executives or senior economists to back up his assertion?

And which government rep was in the studio to discuss the matter afterwards? James Purnell, the culture secretary, best known for getting photoshopped into a picture in a hospital and then claiming he didn’t know it would be done. Purnell told Jeremy Paxman that the government was planning to increase government guarantees of bank deposits from the current low level, something the programme had already mentioned before in a previous report.

Jeremy Paxman, despite his million pound salary, wasn’t listening to Purnell’s comment and replied incongruously: “Well if you do it for one you’d have to do it for all.”

When will the Newsnight editors figure out they need interviewers who listen to and understand replies to their questions? And they should get relevant government ministers in the studio to answer questions or none at all.

Paul Mason, commenting on the effect of the upcoming BBC staff cuts said recently: “Quality is being sacrificed to dross.” Mr Mason: we’re getting the dross already.

Important issues on Newsnight should be reported competently. They should not be covered by odd-job reporters who only have a poor grasp of the subject and produce reports containing clips from inappropriate.