The departure of a senior board member at broadcasting watchdog Ofcom in the wake of the Martin Bashir scandal reignited concerns last night about the closeness of the regulator to the BBC.
Tim Suter, a former managing director of weekly programmes at the BBC, was criticised in Lord Dyson’s report last week into how Bashir landed his 1995 interview with Princess Diana and a subsequent BBC cover-up.
Mr Suter, 64, played a key role in the internal investigation that concluded that Bashir’s actions were ‘absolutely straight and fair’.
Ofcom announced on Friday that Mr Suter was stepping down ‘with immediate effect’ from its board and as the chairman of its separate content board, which sets and enforces quality and standards for television and radio. Ofcom chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes said: ‘We would like to thank Tim for his contribution.’
Ofcom announced on Friday that Tim Suter was stepping down ‘with immediate effect’ from its board and as the chairman of its separate content board
In April 2017, under a new BBC charter and agreement, Ofcom became the first independent, external body to regulate the BBC in the Corporation’s history. A statement issued at the time said Ofcom’s role was ‘to hold the BBC’s performance and editorial standards to account’.
However, Mr Suter’s departure has raised new questions about the oversight of the BBC. Tory MP Andrew Bridgen said last night: ‘Mr Suter appears to have been a poacher turned gamekeeper and that will reinforce people’s belief that Ofcom is a toothless regulator.’
Giles Watling, a Tory MP on the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, said Mr Suter’s position on Ofcom’s board had resulted in a ‘huge perception problem’ for the regulator.
He added: ‘It’s not necessarily that anybody might be influenced, it’s the perception. And if that perception is going to be called into question, then he shouldn’t be there. Once we saw this report coming down the road he probably took the position, “I’ve got to go.” He is carrying baggage, as simple as that.’
As a senior BBC boss, Mr Suter helped Lord Hall in his 1996 inquiry into claims against Bashir. He was one of the executives approached by whistleblower Matt Wiessler – the graphic designer commissioned by Bashir to mock up bank statements – and was named by the BBC as having seen a letter from Diana stating forgeries played no role in her interview.
In a draft letter to Bashir in April 1996, Mr Suter wrote: ‘We are completely satisfied that the interview was freely given; that the Princess was placed under no pressure by you or anybody else; and that she was neither shown any documents nor told anything she did not already know.’
He went on to reprimand the reporter, saying he had breached ‘the BBC’s guidelines on straight dealing’, but added: ‘We believe that no purpose is served by making this a matter of public record.’
In his report, Lord Dyson said: ‘It seems probable that this letter of reprimand was not sent.’
Lord Dyson said that Mr Suter and Lord Hall cleared Bashir ‘in large part on the uncorroborated assertions’ and when they knew he had already lied.
The former Supreme Court judge also criticised the pair for not approaching Earl Spencer, Princess Diana’s brother, who Bashir had shown the forged bank statements in a bid to win his trust.
In 1999, Mr Suter joined the Department for Culture, Media and Sport as an adviser and was responsible for helping to set up Ofcom.
The regulator has said Lord Dyson’s inquiry was ‘clearly of great concern’ and raised ‘important questions about the BBC’s transparency and accountability’.
In a draft letter to Bashir in April 1996, Mr Suter wrote ‘We are completely satisfied that the interview was freely given; that the Princess was placed under no pressure’
Ministers are believed to be considering plans for the BBC to establish a new board made up of former journalists. It would oversee complaints about the Corporation’s coverage. Last night a senior Government source said: ‘Next year’s mid-term BBC Charter review is an opportunity to strengthen governance arrangements if necessary. We will reflect carefully on Lord Dyson’s report to ensure that recent reforms would prevent the appalling failures that he sets out in it.
‘The BBC’s reputation has taken a significant knock. We need to restore trust in it to make sure this can never happen again.’
Last night, an Ofcom spokesman said: ‘Nobody should doubt that Ofcom acts with complete independence. Industry experience is vital to strong regulation and our team is made up of experts from a range of commercial, telecoms and media backgrounds, including newspapers, Channel 4, ITN, Sky and the BBC, as well as online platforms such as Google.
‘We’ve made clear our serious concerns about Lord Dyson’s findings as well as our intention to continue to hold the BBC to account.’