When Sorry is the Hardest Word

The words “unconditional apology” are those that no business leader ever expects to write but, when they are needed, they must be said and lessons must be learnt.

This has been the experience of Tim Davie, director general of the BBC, after the publication of the Lord Dyson’s damning report, which found that Panorama journalist, Martin Bashir, was guilty of deception in the way he secured his interview with Princess Diana in 1995.

For the BBC, a bastion of the British establishment, the apology must have been a bitter pill to swallow 25 years after the deed.

Much of what has been reported centres on the production of forged bank statements, said to have been used to help secure the interview by winning the trust of Earl Spencer.  An internal BBC inquiry in 1996 cleared Mr Bashir, Panorama and BBC News of wrongdoing. That enquiry was conducted by Tony Hall, now Lord Hall, who later became the BBC director general. This, as it now transpires, was a classic case of the BBC marking its own homework and the investigation was described as “flawed and woefully ineffective” by Lord Dyson.

It’s very easy, of course, to throw shade on the BBC for the duplicitous way in which it secured its Panorama scoop, but it is not the only high-profile example of questionable journalism that has blighted the recent history of British media. Other examples, which are all too familiar, are the phone-tapping scandal, which resulted in the shutting down of Sunday red top, News of the World in 2011, and the Sun’s reporting of the Hillsborough tragedy, triggering a lasting boycott of the paper in Liverpool.

Of course, all of this needs to be balanced against numerous examples of good quality journalism that occur day-in day-out. The type of journalism that is often called the fourth estate for speaking truth to power and holding those in position of authority to account.

But what happened at the BBC, News of the World and The Sun is not only a debate about what happens when journalism falls short of the standards we all expect, but also a question of corporate culture. The approach of those at the top to leadership and accountability permeates an organisation and directly affects the behaviour of its employees – for good or bad.

Having listened to a discussion on Radio 4 last week about the case, a contributor described Panorama as a “toxic” environment, where competition between journalists was rife. Without team spirit, everyone is out for themselves, which affects not only morale but also the quality of output, as happened in the case of the Princess Diana interview.

The 2020 Culture Economy Report by breatheHR found one in five employees quit their jobs due to bad workplace culture. Yet, in spite of this, the same survey also revealed that, while 88% of SME decision-makers recognise the importance of culture to their business, only half (54%) regard it as being ‘very important’. This disconnect illustrates clearly that something needs to change.

Workplace culture is vital to the success of any business. It must not be viewed as a soft option or a nice-to-have, but the lifeblood that drives an organisation forward, shaping its values, its ambition – and, ultimately, the behaviour of its employees. And, as we all continue to work remotely, having a strong organisational culture is more important than ever.

And it’s not just about doing the right thing – it also makes good business sense. Having a strong workplace culture can drive benefits from improved morale to enhanced performance and reduced employee churn.

The BBC may be the name in the firing line this time – but their lesson is one from which we could all learn.

This article was written by Angharad Neagle, our chief executive, and featured in the Western Mail on 1 June 2021.