What the "Crowngate" affair says about the BBC

A royal mess

Oct 11th 2007
From The Economist print edition

What the “Crowngate” affair says about the BBC

IT ALL started when RDF Media, a production company, sexed up a documentary it had made for the BBC called “A Year with the Queen” in order to sell it to foreign television firms at a market in Cannes. In a promotional tape, Stephen Lambert, chief creative officer of RDF, switched bits of footage of the queen to make it look as if she had stormed out of a photo-shoot when in fact she had not. The BBC found out about the deception too late and dithered about admitting it. On October 5th an independent investigation into “Crowngate” prompted the controller of BBC1 to resign and plunged the corporation into crisis. More blows are to fall on the Beeb.

The Queen in BBC TV series "A Year with the Queen" in which the Lefty BBC deceived viewers by showing the Queen storming out of a photo-shoot in anger - when it fact she was walking TO the photo-shoot

Mark Thompson, its director-general, said this week that Mr Lambert (who has also resigned) “behaved disgracefully” in altering the footage. But the BBC was only too happy to use RDF's tape to hype the documentary and win a big audience. Perhaps because it was such a good story, no one stopped to question whether it was true, or even probable. Peter Fincham, BBC1's controller, took the tape to a press conference in July and showed journalists the bit where the queen “loses it a bit and walks out in a huff”. The next day the Sun, Britain's best-selling newspaper, ran a piece headlined “I'm orf”.

That the BBC is so desperate to attract viewers points to a bigger problem. Because it is funded by a tax on all television sets, the BBC believes it has to achieve high ratings to justify itself. At the same time it is required to produce distinctive, “public- service” programmes of higher quality than those the commercial sector makes. These goals are often incompatible.

It has been, in fact, a terrible year for British television in general. In addition to Crowngate, the BBC has had to admit that several programmes faked the winners of phone-in competitions in various ways. This too was driven by the need to raise ratings. All three commercial broadcasters—ITV, Channels 4 and 5—have been caught cheating people who telephoned their programmes on premium-rate lines.

The BBC's troubles are unlikely to end soon. Its head of television, Jana Bennett, was criticised by the independent investigator for her handling of the row with the queen and may still have to quit. Mr Thompson is deeply unpopular with staff for the way in which he responded to Crowngate and to the phone-in scandals: employees think he has heaped blame on junior people but protected senior executives. He is also disliked for failing to win as much money as the corporation wanted from the renewal of its licence this year. Because of the shortfall, Mr Thompson will announce plans shortly to cut over a tenth of the BBC's workforce.

The cuts are expected to fall most heavily on factual programming. Several prominent journalists have voiced fears about the future of respected current-affairs programmes such as “Newsnight” and “Panorama”. John Humphrys, a presenter of BBC Radio's most-heeded current-affairs show, the “Today” programme, wants the BBC to shut down instead digital services such as BBC3, a newish television channel designed to appeal to the young. But the BBC would rather weaken what it has than lose a bit of its empire.

Cutting spending on factual content may be dangerous for the BBC, however, as news and documentaries are the programmes that most clearly fulfil its responsibilities as a public-service broadcaster. Crowngate and the phone-in scandals have done more damage to the BBC's reputation with the public than decades of debate over the rights and wrongs of making everyone pay for it. It now needs to get back to chasing quality, not ratings.


The British Broadcasting Corporation, which is usually known as the BBC, is the largest broadcasting corporation in the world in terms of audience numbers and of revenue. It has 26,000 employees in the United Kingdom alone and a budget of more than £4 billion.

Founded in 1922 as the British Broadcasting Company Ltd, it was subsequently granted a Royal Charter and made a state-owned corporation in 1927. The corporation produces programmes and information services, broadcasting globally on television, radio, and the Internet. The stated mission of the BBC is "to inform, educate and entertain"; its motto is "Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation". It was founded in by a group of telecommunications companies — Marconi, Radio Communication Company, Metropolitan-Vickers, General Electric, Western Electric, and British Thomson-Houston — to broadcast experimental radio services. The first transmission was on 14 November of that year, from station 2LO, located at Marconi House, London.

The BBC's Coat of Arms

Domestic UK audiences often affectionately refer to the BBC as "the Beeb", a nickname coined by Kenny Everett. Another nickname, now less commonly used, is "Auntie", said to originate from the old-fashioned "Auntie knows best" attitude in the days when John Reith, the BBC's founder, was in charge. The two nicknames have also been used together as "Auntie Beeb", and Auntie has been used in outtakes programmes such as Auntie's Big Bloomers.

Criticism of the BBC is nothing new. The BBC has long faced allegations of a left-wing or liberal bias, and such criticism has been repeated most recently by past and present employees such as Antony Jay, Jeff Randall, Justin Webb and Andrew Marr.

The BBC received its most serious criticism of recent times over its coverage of the events leading up to the war in Iraq. The controversy over what it described as the "sexing up" of the case for war in Iraq by the government, led to the BBC being heavily criticised by the Hutton Inquiry

Poor Queen, how dare they falsely present her storming off the stage in order to sell to foreign countries? I feel so bad for her Majesty, to think that she has been used to sell television!
I wonder if the Queen would endorse a new product I plan on bringing to market?