A Letter from John Sweeney . . .

I cannot comment on the remarks of John Sweeney in this letter because I do not watch “Newsnight” or the sort of programmes mentioned towards the end about people like Cliff Richards because I think they are only glorified gossip anyway, often built on slender foundations. My own, these days limited, watching of TV inclines me to think that the BBC has long abandoned the “educate and inform” part of its brief in favour of entertainment – it has plumped for bread and circuses rather than public service. Indeed, sometimes when I watch BBC ostensible attempts at anything remotely technical I doubt whether they have anyone with the knowledge necessary to do the job. The idea seems to be to use some alleged “personality” – often it seems a presenter from the past presumably in need of the money – rather than anyone who actually knows what he or she is talking about. Moreover, I suspect that when they do get a knowledgeable person they are instructed to use matey language and dressing-up as a substitute for information and explanation. It is lowest common denominator stuff and it either muddies the water, or sometimes tends to convey incorrect information, and sometimes actually obscures the information.

Thus my sympathies lie with John Sweeney in this matter, and it will be interesting to see what, or if any, response is forthcoming from OfCom. The elephant in the room here is “why”. Why is the BBC doing this ? Is it doing it of its own volition ? Is it the BBC’s interpretation of its Charter ? Or is some outside influence at work. One influence ? or many influences ? We have such corrupt politicians now for whom lying is just a way of getting things done, that it may be Government interference, or outside interference with Government, and one suspects that money changes hands (or off shore bank accounts) along the way, somewhere.

Photograph of John Sweeney, Journalist.
John Sweeney

John Sweeney
Writer & Broadcaster

John Sweeney’s letter to OfCom

November 4 2019

PRIVATE AND IN CONFIDENCE

To the Chief Executive, OfCom,

Dear Ms White,

I am writing to you as a reluctant whistle-blower to ask for a thorough investigation into BBC News and Current Affairs in regard to, firstly, a number of films relating to the far-right, Russia and Brexit that were not broadcast, secondly, films that were broadcast but were improperly compromised and, thirdly, a number of senior journalists who have been allowed to compromise BBC editorial values by taking financial inducements or benefits in kind.

At the outset I should say that I have been informed, entertained and educated by the BBC my whole life. I worked for the BBC for 17 years and left last month and I feel grateful to many of my extraordinary colleagues who do great work for the public good. I pay the license fee and passionately believe in the BBC’s mission.

It is exactly because of that belief that I feel compelled to share what I know from the inside of BBC News and Current Affairs. BBC management, led by Director-General Tony Hall, has become so risk-averse in the face of threats from the far-right and the Russian state and its proxies that due impartiality is being undermined and investigative journalism is being endangered. Films have been not broadcast or enfeebled. Senior journalists have taken money or benefits in kind from Big Tobacco, a dodgy passport-selling company, and proxies for the Russian state.

My concerns centre on the following programmes or films:

Our Panorama on far-right activist Tommy Robinson which should have been broadcast in February or March this year. It had fresh information on Robinson’s links with German far right sources and there was potential to explore how Robinson was being indirectly funded by Kremlin money. Robinson set out to intimidate the BBC. Not broadcast.
Our Newsnight investigation into Lord Mandelson which caused him to change his House of Lords’ register recording money he got from a Russian company connected to the mafiya. After a direction intervention by Mandelson’s friend, then BBC Head of News, James Harding, the investigation stopped. Not broadcast.
Our Newsnight investigation into the dubious connections between former Culture Secretary John Nightingale MP and Dmitri Firtash, the pro-Kremlin oligarch currently fighting extradition to the United States. Not broadcast.
Our Newsnight investigation into Henley & Partners, a dodgy passport-selling firm which sought to silence Daphne Caruana Galizia before she was assassinated. Outside a H & P event in London I was physically assaulted by security for the Maltese PM. Inside a BBC presenter was doing a paid corporate gig for H&P. Not broadcast.
A Newsnight investigation into the pro-Russian sympathies of Labour spin doctor, Seumas Milne. Not commissioned. Not broadcast.
A Panorama on Roman Abramovich: made and completed. I did not work on this but know of it. Not broadcast.
A BBC News investigation into Brexit funder Arron Banks. I did not work on this but know of it. Not broadcast.


Please note that roughly in the same time frame BBC News – not Current Affairs – did broadcast investigations into Cliff Richards and Lord Bramall and Lord Brittan on the basis of a fantasist. Both investigations should never have been broadcast.

The BBC did broadcast films I made that were weakened by management. They include:

A series of Newsnight films into Arron Banks, the man who helped fund Brexit and Nigel Farage. Some were broadcast but the strength of the journalism was enfeebled by management. One, exploring Nigel Farage’s worries about Mr Banks’ connections to Russia, was not broadcast. A second, on Katya Banks and how she came to the United Kingdom, was not broadcast.
A Panorama on Russia called Taking On Putin. This was broadcast last year. In the course of making it the acting head of the BBC Moscow bureau told our Panorama team to leave the bureau though we had sensitive rushes on us and were being pursued by Moscow police. He then informed the Foreign Ministry that I had been filming without a press pass. Not giving me a press pass is a routine piece of administrative harassment by the Russian state. Our fixer was forced to leave Russia for good. It felt like our BBC Moscow colleagues saw the Kremlin as their friend and us as the enemy.


On all the films above I worked on, I sought to complain to BBC management about failures to broadcast or weakening of editorial stance. Most did not seriously engage with my complaints. One senior manager did not reply to four emails I sent asking for a meeting so we never spoke.

To be fair, BBC management have an extraordinary difficult task. Brexit has split the country and maintaining fairness and due impartiality under ferocious pressure, accelerated by social media, is exhausting. The problem is this exhaustion has led to corporate risk aversion and this is destroying investigative journalism at the BBC.

Separately, I fear that BBC values have been undermined by the following senior editors and presenters. Jon Sopel, BBC North America, doing a paid corporate gig for US tobacco giant Philip Morris this year. Justin Webb, Today programme presenter, doing a paid corporate gig for Henley & Partners on two separate occasions.

Sarah Sands, editor of the Today programme and Amol Rajan, BBC Media Editor, receiving benefits in kind from their former employer, Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedev. They attended parties thrown by Lebedev in his Italian palazzo. A third guest was Boris Johnson, now prime minister. It seems impossible for any reporter on the Today programme to fully investigate widely reported stories that as Foreign Secretary Mr Johnson was seen as a “security risk” because of his attendance at Mr Lebedev’s parties if their editor was also a beneficiary of Mr Lebedev’s generosity. Amol Rajan as BBC Media Editor has reported on Mr Lebedev’s business affairs and he too has been a beneficiary of the oligarch’s generosity.

None of this non-BBC work or benefits are for the public good.

It is a characteristic of someone in my position to overstate the significance of their complaints. I do not want to do this. The vast majority of the BBC’s output is excellent.

But the sorry history of investigations not broadcast I report above demonstrates a general pattern of risk aversion and fearfulness. This is a common complaint of BBC journalists. My particular concern is the ability of the Russian state and its proxies to cramp the BBC’s journalism when it investigates what the Kremlin & Co are up to. You cannot make a series of Panoramas on Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump without seeing the evidence of the Russian state and its proxies interfering with democratic politics around the world. That interference includes the United Kingdom. I note that Number Ten has indicated that blocked the publication of the Commons select committee on Russian interference today.

Beyond these points there is a wider issue of the effective non-regulation of social media. The experience of being attacked by Tommy Robinson’s supporters – they behave like a cult – whilst the BBC did not broadcast our Panorama on him was maddening for me, literally so. A freelance colleague made a radio programme about one of his supporters. The stress of being a victim of the far-right online hate machine caused my colleague, who was heavily pregnant at the time, to have a panic attack so intense she mistakenly feared it was a miscarriage. Happily, mother and baby are fine. My observation as a front-line investigative journalist is that public interest broadcasting is over-regulated and social media hardly at all. Social media must be brought within the rule of law or our democracy will be poisoned.

I have evidence to back up every point I make in this letter and practical suggestions to reform and develop the OfCom code if you decide to take the matters raised here further. Please let me know what your response is. I am separately writing to the chair of the House of Commons select committees on the media and copying in the chairs of the intelligence and foreign affairs committees.

Yours sincerely,

John Sweeney

Published on 24-Nov-2019 09:50

To find the source go to John Sweeney’s web site and click on “Articles”.

About The Author

Born 9 December 1933. Former Royal Air Force person. Retired Church of England Clergyman. Father. Grandfather, and now, Great Grandfather. Citizen of Europe and Fervent Remainer. Thinks that Members of Parliament and especially Ministers of the Crown, who lie to Parliament should be brought before a public tribunal where the evidence can be heard, and examined, and suitable penalties awarded.
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