SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
For more about the implications of the scandal with the BBC, we're joined by Martin Bell, OBE. He has a distinguished career as one of the BBC's most famous war correspondents. He covered 11 conflicts, reported from 80 countries over the course of 30 years. Martin Bell was seriously wounded by shrapnel while reporting the war in Bosnia, and if that weren't punishment enough, he then went on to be an independent member of the British parliament from 1997 to 2001.
Martin Bell joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.
MARTIN BELL: A pleasure.
SIMON: You've spoken out about this crisis. What are some of the implications and the possible impact you see here.
BELL: I joined the BBC half a century ago, which makes me feel incredibly old. And in all that time, I cannot remember a crisis so damaging to its reputation for trust as a national broadcaster.
SIMON: Does the way this affair has, thus far, been handled by the BBC tell you anything about the management structure or ethics that prevail there now?
BELL: It's been very badly handled. I think everything starts to go pear-shaped when BBC broadcaster reported the war in Iraq, this was in February/March 2003, which Downing Street highly disliked. And Downing Street went to war with it. There was a commission of enquiry. Then director general lost his job, although the fundamental report was accurate.
And the BBC then went into retreat, a culture of timidity set in, in which it was easier to appoint a safe pair of hands to an important editorial job rather, than someone who might be suspected of making waves and I think this is all part of it.
SIMON: Mark Thompson, the former director general of BBC, has just left to become the next CEO of the New York Times. And the Times public editor suggested a few days ago that his appointment ought to be delayed until he makes an accounting of his actions or failure to take action. Mr. Thompson said he's never got any formal report about the news night story. Should that be good enough? Are there other questions to be raised here?
BELL: There are questions to be raised and I think he's going to have to take time off from being CEO of the New York Times just to appear before the House of Commons committee. There are some serious issues. It was on his watch. I think Mark should move, very quickly, back to his own backyard for a little awhile and just tell us what he knew.
SIMON: Martin Bell, what would you say to people who question the government subsidy to the BBC, especially in a time when there's so many private broadcasters?
BELL: Actually, I happen to think it's an incredibly good value for money. You know, I worked in your wonderful country as the BBC's chief Washington correspondent for 12 years, and the news, including the television news and the ads, drove me crazy. I wanted it straight. To have a public service of the BBC's quality, usually admired throughout the world, they're not necessarily so much here, is a marvelous asset.
I happen to think that we will recover, we being the BBC. But my goodness, this is the worst time that I can remember, The worst scandal and the most damaging to trust. But now we've got to keep it. It is still - I'm sure NPR is wonderful, but as far as I know, the BBC is the world's best and most authoritative news broadcast.
SIMON: What about people who raise questions and say they're so many privately funded alternatives at this point? And to be fair, their shows win awards, too.
BELL: Yes, and a lot of them are Murdoch and they have - they've got a commercial interest in cutting the BBC down to size and the BBC has over-expanded. But it's a point worth making, that this scandal has been lingering there in our public and broadcasting life certainly since the early 1970s. And none of these fearless newspapers, these tabloids, have even touched it. The BBC had the story, dropped it, to its eternal discredit, but the newspapers never touched it.
SIMON: And the tabloids have not been known to shy away from a story like this as a matter of taste.
BELL: Oh, no, no. Taste and tabloids don't go together. That's their whole shtick. It's surprising. I mean, it would have - of course, while he was alive, this Jimmy Savile, he had good lawyers and it would've taken quite a lot to bring him down, but a cast iron case could've done. They didn't. They never touched it. There were all these rumors swirling around for all these years. So it happened rather belatedly, but it's to the BBC's discredit that it did not run this expose itself.
SIMON: Martin Bell, veteran BBC war correspondent and former member of Parliament, speaking from London. Thanks very much.
BELL: Thank you, sir. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.