Justin Forsyth 'asked BBC chiefs to water down programme critical of charity'

Justin Forsyth approached senior executives at the BBC to water down a Panorama programme critical of Save the Children while he was chief executive at the charity, a tape recording suggests.

A phone conversation, obtained by the Press Association, between the controversial former charity executive and a BBC reporter who was attempting to gain a response about a story critical of Save the Children, reveals that Mr Forsyth had been speaking to senior executives at the top of the BBC in an attempt to present the story in a way that would be favourable to Save the Children.

In the recording Mr Forsyth, when asked for a comment about Save the Children's investment practices, says: "I've also spoken to other people at the BBC and they've told me a way that they want to handle this, so maybe you should talk to them too."

When the reporter asks who at the BBC Mr Forsyth had been having conversations with, Mr Forsyth says "I'm literally about to go into a funeral" and hangs up.

Mr Forsyth, 52, quit his role as deputy executive director of Unicef on Thursday after allegations of inappropriate behaviour towards female members of staff emerged during his time at Save the Children, where he was chief executive between 2010 and 2016.

Brie O'Keefe, a former Save the Children senior campaigns adviser, told Newsnight on Thursday that Mr Forsyth's tenure at Save the Children meant "certain toxic leadership behaviours were tolerated".

The much-delayed Panorama programme, broadcast in December 2013, was initially intended to be critical of Save the Children and its links to corporate donors such as the Big Six energy companies and pharmaceutical giant Glaxosmithkline (GSK).

The Panorama team had sent numerous requests for a response to their story to the Save the Children press office, but had received no reply.

A BBC reporter was then tasked with calling Mr Forsyth. After receiving the unsatisfactory reply, a senior producer for the Panorama programme told the Press Association that a decision was made to confront Mr Forsyth outside the Save the Children offices.

James Harding was head of news at the BBC when the Panorama programme was made (Ian West/PA)
James Harding was head of news at the BBC when the Panorama programme was made (Ian West/PA)

The filming took place, but it is understood the then head of news at the BBC, James Harding, ordered that the segment be cut from the film. The producer said they believed Mr Forsyth pulled strings with Mr Harding to have the section removed from the final edit.

"Despite his warm words on transparency, Forsyth was clearly using his media contacts to block legitimate criticism. The sad thing is that the BBC high command succumbed to his interference," the producer said.

He added: "We filmed an embarrassing doorstep sequence of Mr Forsyth floundering outside his office, but Mr Harding insisted this was cut from the edit, and we had to insert additional positive content about Save the Children.

"In the year of Panorama's 60th anniversary, the BBC's flagship current affairs programme ran more like an advert for the charity than a critique."

The producer said that Mr Harding also ordered a filmed sit-down interview with Mr Forsyth and said: "This was really outside normal practices" as such a decision would always lie with the programme's editor.

The producer also said the final version of the Panorama programme was additionally watered-down at the last minute to make Save the Children appear more favourable.

Another edit that Mr Harding was said to have insisted on was a quote about pharmaceutical firm GSK, given by Mr Forsyth during the sit-down interview.

The BBC programme was broadcast in December 2013 (Anthony Devlin/PA)
The BBC programme was broadcast in December 2013 (Anthony Devlin/PA)

The 30-second quote name-checked GSK and described how millions of children's lives could be saved by Save the Children using a GSK gel to stop neonatal sepsis.

Mr Harding declined to comment when approached by the Press Association, but a BBC spokeswoman who had been in contact with him about the allegations said: "We stand by our journalism, which upholds the BBC's editorial values; we examined the evidence, ensured a robust investigation of the issues, and then broadcast the resulting programme."

Justin Forsyth said: "Panorama ran a programme questioning Save the Children's partnership with GSK. This partnership aimed to save one million children's lives including through GSK pioneering R&D to transform a mouth wash they produced into a gel to stop millions of babies dying of neo natal sepsis - an infection of their umbilical cord at birth.

"I am very proud of this partnership and I did an interview for Panorama saying so."