Saudi Arabia: BBC interviewed a convicted perjurer linked to the ruling family without alerting its audience and then insisted this was acceptable
Stephen Hewitt | Published 24 February 2003 | Last updated 31 March 2021
On 12 October 2001 the BBC broadcast an interview with a man previously convicted of perjury - lying on oath - who had financial and personal links to the ruling family of Saudi Arabia. The topic of the interview was Saudi Arabia and its rulers but the BBC Radio 4 “Today” programme did not reveal his links with them or his history of dishonesty.
This is a record of how the BBC responded when a complaint drew attention to this. The final response came from those at its highest levels, including a committee drawn from its governing body.
The complaint to the BBC was mine. So in telling the story I try to be accurate and balanced, but and I do not offer any opinion on whether it is possible for someone who makes a complaint to report on it from a “neutral” viewpoint. However, this was a complaint in which I had no personal or financial stake.
Included in the record here are all the communications to and from the BBC and the BBC's final published report on the complaint.
The man interviewed was Jonathan Aitken, a former MP and former privy councillor who had been sentenced on 8 June 1999 to 18 months in prison.
In 2001 a complaint was supposed to be for an infringement of the BBC's “Producers' Guidelines”, which the BBC had published on its website and the initial complaint made three points, which the BBC later summarised in its final report as follows:
Mr Hewitt complained to the Programme Complaints Unit of breaches of the BBC's Producers' Guidelines on accuracy and impartiality on the basis that:
- Mr Aitken was treated as a reliable and authoritative source of information, despite his conviction for perjury;
- Mr Aitken was allowed to “smear” the previous speaker, Dr Saad al-Fagih, without Dr al- Fagih being given a right to reply;
- the introduction to Mr Aitken did not make clear Mr Aitken's financial and other connections with the Royal Family.
Subsequently I decided that the second point above was a mistake, for several reasons. One reason was my use of the word “smear”, a colloquial expression which could mean almost anything. In fact what Jonathan Aitken had said, as recapitulated by the BBC, was “Dr al-Fagih has a long-standing agenda for trying to make Saudi Arabia unstable and is making the most of current opportunities”.
The procedure was to submit a complaint and if you were not satisfied with the response, you could appeal to the “Governors” - the people responsible for running the BBC.
This was put in the following terms by the quarterly bulletin Programme complaints: Appeals to the Governors for July - September 2002: “The Governors' Programme Complaints Committee (GPCC) is a sub-committee of five members drawn from the full Board of Governors.”
The BBC's Head of Programme Complaints rejected all three points of the complaint and I appealed to the Governors' Programme Complaints Committee on two of the points - the first and last above. Four months later I received a letter saying that the committee had rejected the appeal, although it did concede that “in its view the interview would have been better framed with a more explicit reference to the nature of Mr Aitken's relationship with the Saudi Royal Family”.
“I do not believe that Mr Aitken's conviction for perjury is connected to his expertise on Saudi Arabia”
In the BBC's initial response, the Head of Programme Complaints, Fraser Steel, wrote:
“Your first point raises no issue for me to investigate, as Mr Aitken's conviction for perjury is unconnected with his expertise on the subject of the interview, and as it is in any case so well-known that listeners would have needed no reminder of it.”
During the course of this complaint the BBC produced two different accounts of how Jonathan Aitken had been introduced.
First, Fraser Steel wrote: “we have now listened to a tape of the programme” and later in the same letter the following:
Mr Aitken was introduced as a “. . .former Conservative minister for Defence Procurement who knows Saudi Arabia well”, which is also factual. It might even be taken as a description of his connections to the country.
Later the BBC's complaint appeals committee described the introduction differently:
The terms of the introduction were: “Someone in whose life the Saudi Royal Family has loomed large is the former Conservative Minister for Defence Procurement, Jonathan Aitken.”
The Governors' Programme Complaints Committee
In the appeal I wrote “I am not appealing against the refusal to uphold the second point of my complaint.” This did not prevent the Governors' Programme Complaints Committee listing the point in its Appeals Bulletin with the comment “The Committee was also satisfied that Dr al-Fagih did not have an automatic right of reply in this context.”
On the other hand the first point, which was the subject of an appeal, was ignored. The document recording the finding of the committee does not provide any reasoning for “not upholding” the appeal on the first point of the complaint. After recapitulating what Fraser Steel had written about the first point, it simply does not refer to it again.
The third point produced discussions unrelated to infringement of the Producers' Guidelines such as that the committee agreed “that Mr Aitken was an imaginative choice of interviewee”, before the following paragraph:
The Committee discussed in detail the terms of the introduction used for Mr Aitken. Stephen Mitchell explained that in his judgement the introduction was “sufficient shorthand” to remind the Radio 4 audience of the context. He maintained that the Today programme could assume greater knowledge in its audience, and that the introduction was adequate to flag up the close relationship between Mr Aitken and the Saudi Royal Family, and did not give the impression that Mr Aitken was an objective observer.
The document concluded with “The appeal was not upheld.”
The BBC subsequently included a modified version of this text on page 4-5 of the Programme Complaints: Appeals to the Governors January to March 2002 Issued April 2002 which can be found below.
Sir Robert Smith, the chair, subsequently wrote in the April-June issue of the same BBC bulletin (which can also be found below):
“It is important that people who make a serious complaint to BBC management, and are not happy with the response they receive, have the right to appeal to the Governors' Programme Complaints Committee (GPCC) for an independent review of their complaint.”
The “independent” review as described by the committee's final decision document in this case, involved the BBC governors talking to the BBC staff in the absence of the complainant.
Although the names of members of the Board of Governors of the BBC were published in the BBC's annual reports, the members of this sub-committee seemed to be anonymous, and at the conclusion of the appeal I still had been given no information about who sat on it, with the exception of its chair, who wrote to me with its conclusions.
In a similar vein to the above justifications from Stephen Mitchell for the words used in the interviewee's introduction - essentially that the audience of a particular public broadcast has a special understanding and would not be misled - is a BBC response to a complaint published in a book, The Fake News Factory: tales from BBC-land by David Sedgwick. It contains a verbatim copy of a reply received in 2019 from the BBC's “Executive Complaints Unit”, which includes the following paragraph:
As alluded to in the response from BBC Complaints, Emily Maitlis used the word “welcome” ironically, since Mr Khan's message was highly critical of the president. The subsequent discussion set the comment in context and explored the history of the on-gong hostility between the two leaders, though I think it unlikely that many among Newsnight's politically astute audience would have been unaware of its existence already, nor of the mayor's views on the president's visit. Given that, and their familiarity with the general tone and style of Newsnight, it's my view that few members of the audience would have taken the comment to imply that the president had responded antagonistically to a conventional warm message of welcome from the mayor.
The following is the entire correspondence with the BBC, listed in chronological order. All communications were on paper, conducted by post.
- Letter to BBC dated 15 October 2001
- To Head of Programme Complaints a complaint about the interview "Today" Radio 4 FM broadcast 12 October 2001
- Reply from the BBC dated 18 October 2001
- First response from Head of Programme Complaints "Mr Aitken's conviction for perjury is unconnected with his expertise on the subject of the interview"...
- Further reply from the BBC dated 29 October 2001
- "we have now listened to a tape of the programme"...
- Letter to Chairman of the Board of Governors, dated 30 November 2001
- An appeal to the Governors' Program Complaints Committee concerning "Today" Radio 4 FM Friday 12 October 2001
- BBC acknowledgement, dated 2 January 2002
- "forwarding it to the Committee's Secretary"
- Another BBC acknowledgement of the same letter
- Governors' Program Complaints Committee "will give initial consideration to this at their next meeting"
- Yet another reply from the BBC, dated 20 February 2002
- "This has now received initial consideration and will be given full consideration at the next meeting"...
- Final letter from the BBC enclosing its findings, dated 11 April 2002
- From Sir Robert Smith, chair of Governors' Programme Complaints Committee
- Findings enclosed with the letter
- ..."although in its view the interview would have been better framed with a more explicit reference to the nature of Mr Aitken's relationship with the Saudi Royal Family. The appeal was not upheld."
BBC Programme Complaints Bulletins, downloaded February 2003
- Programme Complaints: Appeals to the Governors January to March 2002 Issued April 2002 app_02_apr.pdf
- Downloaded from http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/bbc/pdf/app_02_apr.pdf
- Programme Complaints: Appeals to the Governors April to June 2002 Issued July 2002 app_02_jun.pdf
- Downloaded from http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/bbc/pdf/app_02_jun.pdf
BBC Producers' Guidelines, downloaded September 2003
- Contents and Introduction section1.pdf
- Downloaded from http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/producer_guides/pdf/section1.pdf
- Consultation and Referral section2.pdf
- Downloaded from http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/producer_guides/pdf/section2.pdf
- Values, Standards and Principles section3.pdf
- Downloaded from http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/producer_guides/pdf/section3.pdf
- Issues in Programmes section4.pdf
- Downloaded from http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/producer_guides/pdf/section4.pdf
- Programme Funding and External Relationships section5.pdf
- Downloaded from http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/producer_guides/pdf/section5.pdf
- Politics and Politicians section6.pdf
- Downloaded from http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/producer_guides/pdf/section6.pdf
- Elections section6a.pdf
- Downloaded from http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/producer_guides/pdf/section6a.pdf
- Matters of Law section7.pdf
- Downloaded from http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/producer_guides/pdf/section7.pdf
- Accountability section8.pdf
- Downloaded from http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/producer_guides/pdf/section8.pdf
- Appendix section9.pdf
- Downloaded from http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/producer_guides/pdf/section9.pdf
- Guardian article: Princess executed for eloping Guardian, 22 January 1978, page 1 (Reports that in Saudi Arabia princess shot and husband beheaded)
- Times article: MI6 fed Cold War propaganda to BBC Michael Evans, Times, 20 October 1997, page 8
- Observer article: Revealed: How MI5 vets BBC staff David Leigh and Paul Lashmar, Observer, 18 August 1985, page 1
- Observer article: THE BLACKLIST IN ROOM 105 David Leigh, Paul Lashmar, Observer, 18 August 1985, page 9
- Guardian article: Journalists accuse BBC of censorship Andrew Culf, Guardian, 9 February 1994, page 3 (Unnatural death of the parliamentary private secretary to Jonathan Aitken)
- Cambridge student demonstration against arms trade investments, 2007 11 February 2007, Cambridge city centre
- Al-Jazeera television: a compilation of information From 2005 onwards
- Not quite as it seems? 1994 BBC documentary's depiction of the removal of Lenin's statue in Russia Stephen Hewitt
- Guardian article: Aitken, the fixer and the secret multi-million pound arms deals David Pallister, David Leigh and Jamie Wilson, Guardian, 5 March 1999