Jimmy and the BBC

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The inept handling of two child abuse stories by the BBC’s flagship Newsnight programme has become a national scandal. There are widespread claims that the public broadcaster is in chaos as it faces the worst crisis in its 90-year history. George Entwistle, the Director-General of the BBC gave a stunning display of incompetence before resigning after 54 days in the post. News executives, Helen Boaden and Steve Mitchell have been asked to “step aside” and disciplinary proceedings have begun against staff who failed to carry out basic journalistic checks.

The Sunday Telegraph wailed in a leader, “Good journalism is in peril in Britain today”.

Context is needed to fully appreciate the drama. Britons are proud of their public broadcaster whose quality light-entertainment programming is a huge part of popular culture. They affectionately regard “Aunty Beeb” as a trusted member of the family. Xmas without her is unthinkable. She brought Jimmy Savile into their homes. He was the flamboyant host of the seminal music chart show “Top of the Pops”, and went on to present “Jim’ll Fix It”, a programme which made the dreams of children come true. He also raised millions for charity.

Last month, a year after his death Savile was exposed as a pedophile in a documentary on Independent Television. Hundreds of allegations of child abuse followed suggesting Savile may have been Britain’s most prolific sex offender. Some of the crimes were alleged to have taken place on BBC premises. Shortly before the documentary was broadcast Newsnight’s editor, Peter Rippon, blogged he had dropped an investigation into the presenter last year. The BBC then broadcast a tribute to Jimmy Savile in its Xmas schedule. The revelation provoked public outrage and Mr Entwistle’s response was shamefully lame.

Newsnight compounded its misery a month later when it broadcast a report on November 2 insinuating a leading Thatcher-era Conservative politician, former treasury minister Lord McAlpine, had been part of a child abuse network in the 1980s. The programme, quite indefensibly, made no effort to contact Lord McAlpine. The report was produced for the BBC by the Bureau for Investigative journalism, a non-profit initiative based at City University in London.

Its editor Iain Overton resigned but there are still questions about why the BBC needs to outsource investigations.

Newsnight’s star witness, Stephen Messham, retracted a week later after realising he had made a mistake. He apologised unreservedly to Lord McAlpine who threatened to sue the BBC.

The Guardian reported the story on its front page on Friday, November 9. Astonishingly, George Entwistle said he had not seen the story when he was interviewed on the BBC the next day. He had revealed a similar lack of interest about the decision to drop the Savile investigation. The “resignation” of “incurious George” was inevitable and duly confirmed later that evening. MPs were furious to learn he would be paid his full salary of £450,000.

Back at the BBC restoring the trust of audiences is the priority. There are four ongoing BBC investigations and a number of others. Atholl Duncan, former head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland, says, “BBC journalism is respected globally for its quality, accuracy and trustworthiness. It is one of the most valuable things in the world. Break the trust, weaken or shackle BBC journalism and you have a much poorer society at home and abroad. The stakes could not be higher.”

The notion that the BBC’s reportage is the gold standard for journalism is commonplace in Britain – and especially at the BBC. It is unfortunate that this is not true, sad that it is such a widely held opinion and tragic that it is regarded as self-evident in the face of all evidence to the contrary. By way of example, although the BBC covers the Westminster village tediously it said nothing about the privatisation of the National Health Service by stealth, a story far more important than the BBC’s current predicament. The assumption that austerity is necessary and inevitable because the public deficit must be cut is never seriously deconstructed.

Genuine investigative journalism is a no go area. HIV, global warming, weather modification, GMO crops, dodgy vaccines and a parasitic financial system escape disinterested analysis. Instead the BBC does its best to bolster the official and extremely shaky narratives of the 9/11 attacks on America and the 7/7 bombings in London.

The BBC is in the business of official news or more plainly propaganda. Foreign coverage ensures a perverted view of the world. In the BBC narrative NATO is always the good guy forced to bomb dictators out of office to save the natives from genocide. The template hardly changes and the guests are the usual suspects. Despite its much vaunted impartiality critical voices on the BBC are mostly noticeable by their absence. The pervasive influence of neo-liberal theology reinforced by layers of new model management has created a fiefdom of philistines.

And yet there are always – particularly on radio – programmes of considerable interest, even gems of utter brilliance alongside the news swill. On Saturday evening, somewhat ironically, Radio 4 broadcast “Whose Reithian Now” which included clips from an interview with Lord John Reith, the BBC’s first director general. When he launched the BBC in 1922 its purpose was to educate, inform and entertain. These “Reithian” values still express the ideals of the public broadcaster, the belief that its essential role is to sustain and enhance democracy. Like democracy, however, the possibilities of the BBC are limited by the distribution of social power.

The reality is easy to understand. In May 2003 the BBC reported that Prime Minister Tony Blair had deliberately misled parliament when he said Saddam Hussain’s military planning allowed him to launch weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes. The claim was made in a brief early morning slot. The government forced the resignation of the Director General Greg Dyke and the BBC’s chairman Gavyn Davies. The Chilcot Inquiry into why Britain went to war in Iraq is not expected to report its findings till the middle of next year. With the departure of Mr Dyke the BBC relapsed into management mode.

The BBC has the power to shape public opinion remarkably and for the common good. That won’t happen because real democracy would threaten the establishment. That’s Britain’s dirty little secret hidden behind a veneer of fake propriety. Restoring trust in the BBC is simply reviving its power to indoctrinate, manipulate and abuse. That’s hardly a crisis. Good journalism is not in peril in the UK; it’s dead in the mainstream and only survives as a subversive activity.

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