Lord Hall, the BBC director general, has immense powers. He is not only the chief executive of the £5billion-a-year Corporation, he is also its editor-in-chief.
The only check on his conduct is the BBC Board of Management, but that is packed with BBC executives and so-called ‘independent’ members, such as Arts Council chief Sir Nicholas Serota and Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who are anything but because they share Lord Hall’s liberal-Left ‘diversity’-at-all-costs mindset.
The dual role entails responsibilities beyond those in other large media organisations dealing with news. National newspapers, for example, almost invariably have chief executives to run the business side and editors to run the news content, usually with a dispute resolution mechanism for when clashes occur. The same is the case at the BBC’s only terrestrial broadcast rivals, ITV News and Channel 4 News.
The Cliff Richard breach of privacy court case – with the BBC’s decision on Wednesday not to go to the Court of Appeal despite much blustering to the contrary – has culminated with the Corporation conceding game, set and match to the singer.
It has also generated a damages and legal costs bill of at least £1.9million, the equivalent of almost 13,000 licence fee payments.
Because of his dual role, responsibility for this huge misjudgment lies firmly with Lord Hall. It happened almost two years after he was appointed and had recruited former Times editor James Harding to be his key lieutenant as director of news.
Lord Hall centrally carries the can for the huge breach of Sir Cliff’s privacy and everything that went on in connection with the raid.
According to Mr Justice Mann in his judgment, that included disingenuous, coercive and sometimes lying conduct of BBC staff; the gung-ho and sensationalist pursuit of a perceived scoop; the decision to enter the ‘scoop’ for a Royal Television Society award; the naming of Sir Cliff before he had been arrested, questioned or charged in connection with any criminal offence (or indeed knew anything of any allegations against him); and the grossly over-the-top deployment of a helicopter in the raid coverage.
At the time of the raid in August 2014, leading international human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson said it amounted to ‘a conspiracy to injure’ the singer.
Is that, then, the end of the matter? Has Lord Hall come forward to to explain why he has brought the reputation of BBC journalism (such as is left of it) into disrepute? And to apologise unequivocally to Sir Cliff for causing him so much distress by such a flagrant breach of his privacy?
Of course not. On Wednesday, as the decision not to appeal was made public, Lord Hall was – as has been the case throughout this four-year debacle – nowhere to be seen. Nor was Fran Unsworth, his recently appointed director of news, who had signed off on the coverage in a more junior role and was the most senior BBC defendant in the court case.
Instead, it was left to David Jordan, the BBC’s director of editorial policy and standards, to field interviews.
Nevertheless, what he had been sanctioned to say would almost certainly have been cleared by Lord Hall himself. And what was the BBC message?
Well, despite its own legal advice that the Corporation had no chance of winning an appeal, the BBC is not yet ready to bury the hatchet.
Mr Justice Mann said three weeks ago in his reasons why he would not allow an appeal (prompting the BBC to ponder an Appeal Court ruling):
‘It has been suggested that my judgment is remarkable in imposing a new blanket restraint on the reporting of the subject of a criminal investigations. . . That is an erroneous reading . . . My judgment acknowledges that the reasonable expectation of privacy in the fact of an investigation is a presumption or starting point that can give way to countervailing factors; the safety of the public is one example.’
Despite this, the BBC’s message on Wednesday was that Mr Justice Mann is wrong. In the BBC’s eyes, the ruling will endanger public safety and disallow the naming of suspects. They have now written to the Attorney General demanding a change of the law to recognise this.
A second point conveyed by Jordan on His Master’s behalf was that Mr Justice Mann – who meticulously detailed in his core judgment last month why he did not believe the BBC’s account of its dealings with South Yorkshire police over the raid, thus doing what a judge does – had erred.
It boiled down to two fingers from Lord Hall to both the British court process and to Mr Justice Mann for daring to rule that the Corporation could be wrong.
To be fair, Jordan did also repeat an apology to Sir Cliff and acknowledge the distress he had suffered. He also accepted clearly for the first time that elements of the BBC coverage were ‘ill-judged’.
But in the context of the heavy BBC caveats about the judgment, do these words of qualified appeasement add up to anything meaningful or genuinely felt?
Two weeks ago, as the BBC was still considering an appeal, former BBC Chairman Lord Grade waded into the debacle. In an excoriating attack in the Times, he observed:
‘If there is a higher principle at stake, why is the editor-in-chief of the BBC, its director-general Lord Hall of Birkenhead, like Macavity, nowhere to be seen or heard? Why was he not on the steps of the court after the judgment? What and when did he know about the decision to launch helicopters and collude with the police? Is he proud of the scoop?
‘The ultimate custodian of the public interest in the BBC is its publicly appointed board. What action are they demanding over this shameful episode? Is there not a public interest in explaining their position to their paymasters, the licence-fee payers? It’s time the BBC Board spoke out about one of the most shocking lapses in the history of BBC journalism. It’s not too late for the BBC hierarchy to exercise some judgment.’
A further question now outstanding is whether Lord Hall should resign. The buck for this whole sorry saga, and the continuing obfuscation and prevarication, stops with him.