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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, November 11, 2012

What is Going On at the BBC?

Three recent scandals have raised questions about whether the BBC has lost its way.

First, a longtime pop music host Jimmy Savile was revealed to have been a serial sex addict, attacking young teenagers who showed up to dance on his TV show, Top of the Pops. Savile was an indefatigable fund-raiser for charities as well as an indefatigable groper, especially of young girls confined to orphanages, hospitals and halfway houses on whose behalf he raised nillions of pounds. Some of the children (now adults) complained, but Savile was so well-known that the complaints were ignored. Savile died last year and the victims of his assaults are only now coming forward.

That's the first scandal.

The second concerns the BBC's highly respected investigative journalism program, "Newsnight." It planned to do an exposé on Savile. But for reasons still unexplained, the program producer killed the report, claiming that there was not enough evidence. The producer has been forced to resign.

Related to scandal #2, is the apparent lack of awareness of Savile's proclivities by Mark Thompson, former Director-General of the BBC. Thompson has left the BBC to become the new CEO of the New York Times. My colleague Margaret Sullivan, recently appointed as the Times' public editor has blogged about the ethical discomfort that she and others feel about Thompson's role in all this. He claims that no one told him about Savile. Others at the BBC say that yes, they did mention it to him. But no action was taken.

(As a student in London in the 70s, Top of the Pops was worth watching because the latest musicians  - Stones, Kinks, etc. performed there. The show was frenetically emceed by Savile, who came across as a speedier version of comedian Marty Feldman. Everyone at the London School of Economics "knew" that Savile was a letch...).

Scandal #3: Newsnight ran an exposé of a "prominent Tory politician" who also engaged in pedophile sexual abuse in Welsh orphanages (this Dickensian theme of orphanages keeps recurring). A so-called witness on the program named Lord McAlpine, scion of a major British construction company as the one. Lord McAlpine said this was a lie and said he will sue. Newsnight was forced to apologize when it was revealed that the "witness" could not identify McAlpine in a photograph, and then admitted McAlpine was not the Tory politician in question.

Lord Patton, the head of the BBC Trust has called for a complete investigation into all three events, claiming that the BBC needs to be "reformed." In the meantime, all investigative reporting on the BBC has been suspended. George Entwhistle, the recently appointed Director General has also resigned.

For the Murdoch empire, subject to the on-going Leveson Inquiry into News Corps International's malfeasance and journalistic indiscretions, this timely focusing on the BBC may appear to provide temporary relief from further scrutiny. The BBC has been vigorous in following Murdoch's troubles. Now his newspapers are jumping on the BBC's woes with great relish.

Meanwhile, those of us who look to the Beeb as a standard bearer of public broadcasting excellence and ethical behaviour, this has been deeply disappointing.

Some observations come to mind:

First, the Savile affair is about the confusion between reputation and morality. Savile represented the BBC and even when rumors about his bizarre behaviour circulated, the BBC was unable to admit or refused to admit that he was a dangerous man.

Second, Newsnight appears to have been forced to admit that there are indeed, sacred cows that cannot be touched by journalism. The BBC supported Savile's charitable work because it made the public broadcaster look good as well. That meant the BBC had to turn a blind eye to the fact that as many as two hundred girls and women were damaged to sustain the BBC's reputation. A commercial TV network, Channel 4 could do the story. The BBC could not.

Finally, Newsnight's apparent defamation of Lord McAlpine will be sorted out in the courts. But some questions remain:
  • Why did Newsnight's editorial team not make sure that they had the right man named, before it went to air?
  • Was the script not vetted by BBC lawyers? 
  • Did any one in management have qualms about this story? Or was management not consulted?
  • Is Lord Patton right and more than "reform" may be needed?

My own suspicions, based on a conference on media ethics I attended last month in Oxford lead me to a more serious concern: that the BBC, like its Fleet Street colleagues, while creating great journalism, does so inside a systematic and subtle newsroom culture of bullying and even homophobia.

The McAlpine story which claimed that a "senior Tory politician" was assaulting boys, seems to be very much in keeping with that private school culture in the UK that brutalizes and stigmatizes as a way keeping up newsroom morale for a few.

My students are asking me if the BBC can still be trusted to report on there own difficulties. I assured them that the BBC has no other choice but to report on themselves and to do it well. If they don't, the public could rightly wonder, what else are they holding back?


1 comment:

  1. Dear Jeffrey - JImmy Savile is accused of abusing girls under the age of 16. He is also accused of sexually molesting girls in hospitals and care homes who did not have the capacity to give meaningful consent. This does not make him an alleged "sex addict". It makes him an alleged criminal. I suggest you re-assess your terminology.