It started with shocking allegations about the predatory paedophilic predilections of Jimmy Savile, one of the UK’s most beloved children’s television personalities.
Now the BBC is struggling to defend its own reputation in the midst of a fast-evolving scandal that has already claimed the head of George Entwistle, the corporation’s director general, and threatens to sink its flagship news programme amid allegations of a cover-up and damning evidence of a disregard for basic journalistic procedures.
Bizarrely, the saga has largely played out in the BBC’s own studios, across its own airwaves and on the pages of its own website, with journalists exposing and lambasting the failings of their own colleagues and senior managers, and news bulletins topped by the latest developments from within the corporation’s corridors.
Last Friday’s episode of “Newsnight”, the week-night current affairs show in the firing line over its two botched investigations into allegations of child sex abuse, evocatively captured the contorted navel-gazing to which the BBC has been reduced, with the show’s presenter asking unsympathetic guests “Is ‘Newsnight’ toast?” and “How bad can it get?”
Even David Dimbleby, a venerable BBC broadcaster tipped by some as Entwistle’s successor, admitted on Monday that the organisation’s senior management appeared to have lost the plot.
“In my opinion it [the BBC] is still over managed and the managers speak gobbledegook. Any editor or head of department spends their lives filling in forms and answering questions that are not necessary… It has gone bonkers,” he told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme.
Meanwhile, other sections of the British press have shown little sign of leaving the BBC to administer its own public birching.
“The grotesque editorial failings at Newsnight would have been beyond inconceivable on any national newspaper,” wrote Janet Daly, a columnist in the Daily Telegraph newspaper. “This was no fluke, or momentary lapse of judgement. What is really wrong with the corporation is endemic and institutionalised: it is incestuous, complacent and bizarrely amateurish.”
Others critical of the BBC’s publicly funded status – paid for by a licence fee raised from every household with a television – argue that the current crisis stems from its immunity from the sort of commercial pressures faced by its privately owned rivals.
Sam Bowman, policy director of the free market Adam Smith Institute, told Al Jazeera the situation at the BBC was akin to “an airline losing three planes in one week”.
|Reports that late television show host Jimmy Savile sexually abused underage children have caused a scandal [AFP]|
“There’s no private company that could survive this kind of scandal,” he added. “If something like this happened at Sky [News], people would be so furious and so outraged that they’d be cancelling their subscription tomorrow.”
The origins of the crisis date back to last year when “Newsnight” reporters looked into allegations that Jimmy Savile, an iconic BBC presenter best known for presenting the long-running children’s show “Jim’ll Fix It”, had preyed on under-age girls. Savile had died weeks earlier at the age of 84, and the report never ran.
But a documentary on the rival ITV network last month finally brought the allegations to the public’s attention, triggering a police inquiry and hundreds of further claims of abuse by Savile.
Finding itself scrutinised over the decision to drop its own Savile report, the BBC launched two inquiries, one examining its handling of the “Newsnight” investigation, and another examining allegations of a culture of casual sexual harassment in the decades when the presenter had worked for the corporation.
Then, with fresh Savile accusations still emerging almost daily, “Newsnight” ran an investigation into historic abuse at a children’s care home in Wales, in which a victim alleged he had been sexually assaulted by a former senior figure within the Conservative Party.
That story collapsed last week when the victim retracted the allegation under the threat of legal action, admitting on being shown a picture of his supposed abuser that he had got the wrong person. The scandal prompted Entwistle’s resignation, less than two months after his appointment as director general – with a payoff worth more than $700,000.
An internal report into errors in the “Newsnight” report – published in full on the BBC website – highlighted confusion over the editorial chain of command and said that “basic journalistic checks” into the facts of the story had not been conducted.
By Monday, BBC correspondents were reporting live from outside the corporation’s London headquarters as more senior news executives stepped aside and Tim Davie, the newly appointed acting director-general, vowed to “get a grip of the situation and take action”.
Charlie Beckett, the head of Polis, a journalism think-tank based at the London School of Economics, said failings by the BBC’s senior management had compounded the sense of a listless organisation that had lost control of its own story.
“One of the things that has stunned me is that there are lots of people in the BBC whose job it is to stop bad publicity.
The director general himself and the people around him were remarkably unadept at handling the media,” Beckett told Al Jazeera. “It’s not that they are ethically duplicitous. It’s just that they got the fundamentals completely wrong.”
But Brian Cathcart, professor of journalism at Kingston University, said that the BBC’s very public acknowledgment of its own mistakes should be held up as a rare example of genuine journalistic accountability.
“Just watch the traffic; people trust the BBC. The fact that when you get something wrong you conduct a serious investigation and try to mend it seems to me to be all the best that we can expect from journalism. “
– Brian Cathcart
“There has clearly been a serious journalistic error but we judge journalists not by whether or not they have made mistakes – none of us would pass the test because we all make mistakes – but by what they do about the mistakes,” Cathcart told Al Jazeera.
He said the BBC’s reaction compared favourably to the lack of effective action taken by News International in response to the phone-hacking scandal at its News of the World newspaper, and the repeated libelling by multiple newspapers of Madeleine McCann’s parents following the three-year-old’s disappearance in 2007.
“The BBC is doing what you hope would happen with all journalism. It has to be prepared to deal with its mistakes, it has to be open about them. They have certainly made a mistake but, on the other hand, after the mistake has been made they have behaved in an exemplary fashion.”
But Bowman disagreed, arguing that News International’s shutting down of the News of the Worldin the wake of an outpouring of phone-hacking revelations showed that privately owned media was more responsive to criticism because of commercial pressures.
He said the crisis surrounding the BBC offered an opportunity to debate whether a compulsory licence fee was the best way to fund public service broadcasting, and to question whether an organisation founded 90 years ago remained fit for purpose in the 21st century mass media landscape.
“They’re not going to lose a single penny in public money as a result of this,” he said. “It just goes to show that the BBC isn’t there to serve the public, because if it was it would be in much deeper trouble right now. I think it is really there to serve itself.”
Still, Cathcart believes that the BBC is resilient enough to withstand the crisis, saying, “Just watch the traffic; people trust the BBC. The fact that when you get something wrong you conduct a serious investigation and try to mend it seems to me to be all the best that we can expect from journalism.”
Beckett, though, said he feared criticism of the BBC had done lasting damage to its reputation as the “gold standard” in journalistic integrity. “I think it will have an effect, not so much that people will think the BBC are liars, but I think people will start to doubt their competence and perhaps also their confidence.”