DIGGING into the Martin Bashir affair for TCW has reminded me of another huge scandal about BBC integrity in 1985 in which I was centrally involved. It showed that then, as ten years later, nothing would stop senior BBC management from flagrantly breaking editorial guidelines if these got in their way. On that occasion it cost them a rumoured £750,000 in civil damages, equivalent to at least £2.3million today.
In a High Court ruling, the Corporation were adjudged to be guilty of a ‘scandalous breach of copyright’ against the ITV breakfast channel TV-am, which was at that time trouncing the BBC’s Breakfast Time in the ratings, much to senior management’s chagrin.
The fulcrum of the case was the BBC’s piracy of an interview secured by TV-am presenter Nick Owen with Princess Michael of Kent concerning her father’s alleged involvement with the Nazi SS during the Second World War. News of the connection was a huge national story and everybody wanted to get the princess’s reaction.
Owen had known her for some time, and he said at the time that she decided to talk him exclusively to avoid a media scrum and to get the ordeal over in one go.
The BBC were having none of that.
I had joined TV-am as head of the press office from the BBC, where I had been head of news and current affairs publicity, just two weeks earlier.
TV-am boss Bruce Gyngell put me in charge of all external relations in connection with the interview, one of the first major news exclusives secured by TV-am. The station had been through a disastrous launch – to a significant extent because the BBC set out to sabotage it – and in early 1985 was beginning a determined and successful fight back under Gyngell’s expert leadership. In that context, the interview was ratings gold dust, and Bruce was determined to keep it as an exclusive.
The BBC argued however that because Princess Michael was a royal, the material should be made available to other stations under established pooling arrangements which applied on royal events to limit the size of the media pack.
Our legal advice was that this interview was emphatically not pool material because Princess Michael had decreed otherwise. So when, as the hours ticked down to transmission, the editor of BBC Breakfast Time rang me and asked for a copy of the interview for their programme the following day, my answer was an emphatic ‘no’.
He was not happy, and during the evening there followed a series of calls to me from BBC executives of escalating seniority, culminating with the overall boss of BBC News.
They used every trick in the book from honeyed words to outright threats to try to crack my defences, but my instruction from Bruce Gyngell against the onslaught was to stand firm.
At 11pm came the final weapon in the BBC’s arsenal. It was an Exocet. That evening the Queen was hosting a state dinner at Windsor Castle for Hastings Banda, the president of Malawi. Still on duty, I picked up the phone. ‘Are you David Keighley?’ a cut-glass voice inquired. When I replied that I was, the voice continued, ‘Well, I am Michael Shea, the Queen’s press secretary.’ He told me he was rather displeased with TV-am because he been called out of the banquet and acidly continued, ‘And I am telling you, no, ordering you, to give the Princess Michael interview to the BBC because the royal rota rules apply.’
Somewhat shaken, I responded that I disagreed and told him that our legal advice was that it was our exclusive. Shea’s tone turned icy. He told me in very direct language that (a) I was wrong, and (b) there would be ‘consequences’.
We stuck to our guns, but the following morning at 6.50am BBC Breakfast Time showed the interview almost in its entirety. We had started broadcasting 25 minutes earlier and they simply recorded it and re-ran it. As brazen as that. Aware of the possibility that the BBC would try this, we had made our TV-am strapline at the foot of the screen double the usual size. The BBC blanked out the lower half of the screen to obliterate our ID, so on their version it looked as if Nick Owen and the princess were peering over a wall! There was no attribution whatsoever of how the interview had been obtained. In their arrogance the BBC had indulged in an act of major copyright piracy.
After we came off air at 9am, the TV-am news director Bill Ludford and I hurried from Camden Lock to the Inner Temple where we instructed our legal team in seeking a High Court injunction to stop further showings of our interview and return the pirated copies of it. We also applied for substantial damages for breach of copyright.
Two hours later, the injunction and return order were granted with Mr Justice Walton in the Chancery Division calling it a ‘scandalous breach of copyright’. The BBC, again in its arrogance, and with flagrant disregard for licence fee cash, appealed. Another hour later, that too was turned down in equally forthright language.
The subsequent damages case was resolved out of court in TV-am’s favour.
The episode showed in spades that when it comes to journalistic integrity, the Corporation has the morals of an alley cat. TV-am at that stage, thanks to the BBC’s blunderbuss attempts to sink it, was a struggling minnow which had only recently been on the edge of bankruptcy. But BBC news chiefs could not bear the idea of being outflanked or told they were wrong. Their flagrant act of copyright piracy, as with the Bashir and Cliff Richard cases, illustrates that in pursuit of their interests their editorial guidelines are little more than a window-dressing sham.