Panorama and the toxic BBC culture

The editor of the Weekend Australian says the BBC’s claim that News Corp encouraged piracy against competitors is pure conspiracy theory.

Nick Cater

Topics Free Speech

As the Leveson Inquiry is discovering, the rot in British journalism is not confined to Rupert Murdoch’s News International or the tabloid press, and the ‘toxic Murdoch culture’ is looking like the worst misdiagnosis since swine flu. The truth is disappointingly prosaic: lazy, shabby journalism has been allowed to flourish, and not just in the popular press.

In one of the most recent examples, a team of so-called respectable journalists used secretly recorded private conversations and stolen correspondence to make damaging allegations that have since been comprehensively denied. Their threadbare case relied on the testimony of a chain-smoking, whisky-drinking pirate who has been living in exile from the UK for nearly 10 years and was corroborated with information furnished by a convicted criminal.

Covert recording of conversations is illegal in Australia under the Telecommunications (Interception) Act 1979, but not it seems in Britain, where the journalists openly admitted that their subjects had declined to give on-the-record interviews and that their words had been secretly taped on sneaky-cam. The interception of emails, however, is illegal in the UK under the Computer Misuse Act, yet they were used with disregard for either ethics or accuracy.

If the journalists responsible for this stitch-up had been working for Murdoch – my current boss – they would no doubt have been hauled before Lord Justice Leveson in leg-irons. In fact they work for my former employer – the BBC – and were broadcast on Panorama, a programme I once admired for its solid and balanced reporting.

‘Tonight Panorama reveals the biggest Murdoch hacking scandal of all, this time in Pay TV’, reporter Vivian White began. ‘This is the story never before revealed – of the downfall of a major British company, ITV’s ONdigital.’

The allegations that the security division of a News Corporation subsidiary, NDS, had been undermining competing manufacturers of pay-TV smart cards by encouraging piracy are at least 10 years old and have been tested in several courts. The central claim in the Panorama programme was that NDS paid smart-card hackers to help flood the market with counterfeit ONdigital / ITV Digital smart cards, thus destroying a competitor to BSkyB, a company part owned by Murdoch’s News.

Panorama’s case relied heavily on the evidence of Ray Gibling, a computer hacker who has been hiding in sunnier climes since 2002 when his piracy website, The House of Ill Compute, THOIC for short, was revealed by other pirates to be receiving NDS funding. No one disputes that NDS’s European security division infiltrated THOIC as part of its investigations into piracy. NDS flatly denies, however, that it gave Gibling the secret codes to ONdigital’s smart cards. Yet the BBC prefers to take the word of a fugitive counterfeiter rather than that of a former News Corporation subsidiary, and set off to expose the alleged culpability of two former NDS executives, Ray Adams and Len Withall.

‘They wouldn’t give interviews’, Panorama’s White told viewers. ‘But they did agree to meet us. We secretly recorded them talking about their work with the THOIC website.’ The BBC’s sneaky-cam recordings include nothing that supports their theory. Adams said Gibling’s claim is ‘absolute rubbish’, while Withall said: ‘I never had the ONdigital codes.’ Stalemate in other words, until Panorama unearthed a stolen email from Adams to head office, apparently forwarding a link to a site where the ONdigital codes are revealed.

If Panorama had quoted the email in full, it would have told a very different story. Adams had not written the email, he had simply forwarded it to head office for their attention. He was, in other words, merely doing his job, yet his reputation has been trashed. The implied message of the shaky camera is that he is a man with something to hide.

In contrast to the shabby treatment meted out to Adams and Withall, when Panorama tracked down an actual villain he was treated like current-affairs royalty. Carl Davidson was convicted and jailed for TV piracy, yet White touchingly agreed to spare his blushes and blur his face in an interview.

In the conspiratorial world of Panorama, some questions do not have to be asked, like whether ONdigital / ITV Digital was brought down by piracy at all, let alone Murdoch-sponsored piracy. ONdigital’s former chief technical officer, Simon Dore, told White: ‘It was the killer blow for the business. This isn’t a question.’ He conceded that ‘the business had its issues, aside from the piracy’, but they would have been solvable with careful management. ‘The real killer, the hole beneath the waterline, was the piracy. We couldn’t recover from that.’

At this point it might have been good to hear from the BBC’s media correspondent, Torin Douglas, who wrote recently: ‘Though piracy was undoubtedly a problem for ITV Digital, few would agree that it was “the killer blow” in the fierce pay-TV battle with BSkyB. Poor reception, delays with set-top boxes and a weaker channel line-up were more important.’ The Guardian’s Dan Sabbagh says the immediate reason for ONdigital’s demise was not piracy but ‘an overpriced £315million contract to second-tier Football League matches that few wanted to watch’.

One disgruntled ITV Digitial subcriber, Alex Keenleyside, told the BBC’s Nick Higham in 2002: ‘There’s nothing but crappy repeats. The BBC channels are the worst of the lot. BBC Choice is a choice to turn off and go to the pub.’ Tony Charmier, an electronics engineer from Crawley, West Sussex, told Higham that he paid £350 for a Phillips set-top box from Comet in 1999, but ONdigital refused to sell him a subscription, claiming he was outside the service area.

The idea that a Murdoch rival could be brought down by something as simple as market forces is too obvious for Panorama, which preferred a more complex explanation: it was part of a ruthless quest for global domination by a sinister megalomaniac who would have given James Bond a run for his money. Aristotelian reasoning gives way to the logic of the Grassy Knoll as Panorama sought the least likely explanation for a mundane corporate dispute. We are entering the world of the conspiracy theory, the home of the cheapest irrefutable argument known to journalism.

Most editors learn to deal with the glassy stare of a reporter who has become possessed with a story so outrageous that, if true, will bring down a president at the very least. An Australian journalist by the name of Neil Chenoweth has been working on one such story for the past four years, and came into possession of 14,000 stolen emails proving, to his satisfaction at least, that Murdoch had engaged in dirty tricks to bring down his pay-TV rivals.

Chenoweth is credited as a ‘consultant’ to Panorama, but curiously his own newspaper, the Australian Financial Review, lacked the courage to publish his explosive report until two days after the Panorama broadcast. Having allowed this ‘scoop’ to slip through their hands, the AFR went to town with seven pages of coverage, much of it impenetrable, purporting to expose another Murdoch scandal. The blighters at NDS had apparently been encouraging piracy against Australian pay-TV operation Austar, with the aim of driving down its value so that its rival, Foxtel, 25 per cent owned by News Corporation, could pick it up for a song.

News Limited’s chief executive Kim Williams called the AFR’s claim ‘laughable’. The man at the helm of Austar at the time of the alleged skullduggery, CEO John Porter, said Chenoweth’s story was ‘so farcical that I really don’t think it is worthy of my time’. He said he had seen no evidence whatsoever that News Corporation had promoted pay-TV piracy to damage his business. ‘Quite to the contrary’, he told ABC Radio. ‘We’ve worked very closely through the years with both Foxtel and heavily supported by News Corp, and I’m aware that News Corp has worked globally to try to solve the piracy issue.’

Does anyone else in the pay-TV industry believe the Panorama/AFR conspiracy theory? Apparently not:

  • Geoffrey Cousins, the former head of Foxtel rival Optus Vision, said he had not come across ‘anything even remotely like the allegations at the time I was at Optus’.
  • Ziggy Switkovski, former CEO of Telstra, which owned 50 per cent of Foxtel: ‘There is an implication that there were forces of darkness at work. It never occurred, as far as I was concerned.’
  • Chris Anderson, Optus CEO from 1997 to 2004: ‘Sorting out the legacy losses of pay-TV was one of our many struggles, but piracy was not one of them.’
  • Mike Lattin, the head of Optus pay-TV between 1998 and 2001: ‘It’s fantasy, pure rubbish. It’s just a beat-up.’
  • Abe Peled, executive chairman of NDS: ‘Panorama ignored all evidence that did not support their storyline, including from people they chose to interview. They manipulated emails to support their points. And they relied on the stories of confessed hackers and pirates.’
  • Neil Gamble, chief executive of Australis Media, 1993 to 1996: ‘There was no sign of it. If it was going to be an issue for anyone, John Porter would know.’
  • David Flint, chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Authority, 1998 to 2004: ‘I was surprised by the allegations, which have been raised before. There doesn’t seem to be anything new. I don’t recall any evidence or complaints.’
  • Michael Speck, Australia’s foremost anti-piracy expert: ‘It doesn’t convince at many levels. There are a number of significant flaws in the assertions and conclusions; so many, in fact, you’d have to treat the entire story with great scepticism.’

Australia’s communications minister, Stephen Conroy, has invited the AFR to hand over any evidence of illegal behaviour to the Australian Federal Police. The newspaper’s editor-in-chief Michael Stutchbury has not yet obliged, although as recently as Saturday, his newspaper was continuing to push Chenoweth’s line in the face of all documented evidence. A nod is as good as a wink to Chenoweth, who made the extraordinary claim that an NDS executive had ‘indicated by a facial gesture’ to an American hacker to release a secret code on the internet.

Let us hope the BBC Trust is able to put prejudice to one side and ask how its television current-affairs flagship, which has built up a reputation over more than 50 years, fell for Chenoweth’s conspiracy theory hook, line and sinker, and put to air a programme on the basis of the evidence of a fugitive hacker. More importantly, the Trust should examine how the BBC’s internal culture became so corrupted that its journalists think nothing of covertly recording private conversations and then putting them to air, with no apparent public-interest defence.

The Trust might consider the issue of hypocrisy, and what makes Panorama’s behaviour any less morally repugnant than the voicemail hacks now being considered by Lord Justice Leveson.

Nick Cater is editor of the Weekend Australian, published by News Limited. He began his career at the BBC, from 1981 to 1983 and 1986 to 1989.

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Topics Free Speech


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