Openness, always the best policy

The public will forgive most things in the wake of a sincere apology – take any consumer scandal or public relations problem of recent years and it can be seen that in nearly all cases the transgression of the brand or person concerned was eventually forgotten.

There are exceptions, of course. If the offence was particularly grave or heinous, a recovery is not possible. The end of Gary Glitter’s pop career, the renaming of Gerald Ratner’s eponymous jewellery stores and the demise of the News of the World all testify to that.

But the one thing guaranteed to lead to worse problems than the original transgression is any hint of a cover-up or an attempt to stop the truth coming out.

Just about every public relations handbook (even the “Bluffers’ Guide to PR” probably) warns against it.

It can appear tempting. Especially if the damage isn’t too severe but it’s felt that containing the problem is necessary. A few “white lies” might be told to mislead or stave off public or press enquiries. Tempting as it may be, it’s a recipe for disaster. Because if you get caught, it’s game over.

So it’s a mystery why the BBC should feel it had to censor (or “redact” as it says) some 90 pages of evidence from the 3,000 pages of witness statements published by an inquiry into why an investigation by one of its leading current affairs programmes into the paedophile broadcaster Jimmy Savile was cancelled.

The exclusion of that material will invariably lead to claims of censorship, or efforts to protect senior executives who ought to be publicly called to account for their actions. Whatever the reasons for editing out the material, and the main suggestion is that it was merely ’embarrassing’ rather than likely to lead to legal problems, it doesn’t look good.

The BBC denied that embarrassment was the reason for the redactions. But unless the texts were actionable they should not have been deleted – the BBC is, after all, a public body funded by a licence fee levied on television owners. It ought to understand its relationship with the public should be an open one. It should not operate like some sort of Stalinist censor.

If the BBC’s efforts at censorship seem inappropriate, the actions of other public bodies – specifically health trusts in the British National Health Service, another organisation that commands generally widespread respect in the UK, are execrable.

Two weeks ago, Gary Walker, the former chief executive of an NHS hospital involved in a scandal over high levels of patient mortality went public with what he knew – despite being forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement (otherwise known as a gagging clause) when he was made to resign.

The trust’s lawyers wrote, threatening him with legal action for breaking the terms of the deal. And this prompted no less a figure than the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, to say it was an unacceptable way to behave when health managers raised concerns about patient safety.

It’s now emerged, however, that 90% of severance agreements between health trusts and doctors have gagging clauses.

The Health Secretary said the NHS should not have a culture where people are afraid to speak out. But it’s hard to square this with the widespread use of gagging orders.

Mr Hunt commented that for too long there had been a culture of celebrating success in the health service but “not being honest about failure.”

He’s right. To err is human. To be honest about it is the best policy.

In the interests of full disclosure: I worked at the BBC from 2001-2003.