In defence (rather than praise) of the BBC…

So the Director General of the BBC is gone. And the world’s gone nuts, it seems.

First of all Peter Rippon, the Newsnight editor who decided not to run the Savile investigation, stepped aside after his decision came to light. Now the DG resigns over a second Newsnight programme which did the opposite and reported an unsubstantiated allegation.

Dan Hodges has it about right:

The media is eating itself, and no one appears to have a more voracious appetite than the BBC itself. We now have the stupefying spectacle of the BBC commissioning and airing an exposé on itself, attempting to shore up the Corporation’s journalistic integrity by revealing to the world the Corporation’s lack of journalistic integrity.

There is only one thing that matters here: that anyone who supported Savile in his grotesque campaign of paedophilia is arrested, charged and convicted. That’s it.

Quite. Last night’s Any Questions threw some issues up around child abuse. Most of us, I imagine, never encounter it. But talk to friends who engaged in any form of social work and they tend put the occurrence level much higher.

The problem is that we don’t know how to talk about it. And because we find it awkward, difficult and depressing to think about, it doesn’t get talked about in the public domain. Which in turn locks the victims even further from help.

Max Hastings traces the source of the current hysteria back to a rather single-minded criticism of Newsnight over not reporting a story it’s producers felt they could not stand up even posthumously against Savile:

When the first wave of allegations emerged, I was among those who believed that an investigation was necessary into the role of the BBC, Savile’s employer, in his sordid career.

It seems dismaying that the Newsnight programme commissioned a film probing Savile’s past, then dropped it without a convincing explanation, allowing the BBC to broadcast a string of laudatory Christmas tributes to its old star.

But in the weeks since those charges, claims about paedophilia have become increasingly crazed. Scores of people are making charges against alleged abusers in their past.

The police are obliged to lavish overstretched resources on inquiries. Ministers feel trapped: if they fail to respond, they are accused of indifference or, worse, of concealing sexual crimes to shield the mighty.

A chain reaction has set in. Every new allegation brings frenzied media coverage, which in turn encourages new alleged victims to step forward.

I don’t know if child abuse is quite as marginal as Max suggests. The truth is we just don’t know for sure. But he’s right that the country is gripped in yet another bout of defensive hysteria.

In some cases has had more to do with score settling with the BBC than a direct concern for the victims themselves. John Redwood’s one of the Conservative party’s cooler thinkers. But his contribution to last night’s Any Answers is worth quoting:

Here’s what he said:

Isn’t the point that we expect high standards from the BBC because of the special position of the BBC in the broadcasting spectrum and that what we’re asking is that the BBC should do investigative journalism but it should do it well?

No problem with that. In fact it ought to be a timely reminder that just because it’s on the internet, does not mean you should run with it. Even in a pared down form.

Mistaken identity is no valid excuse either, since the second source rule should kick in. But it’s what Redwood says next that’s interesting:

So that in a case where the person is guilty they should get to the bottom of it as quickly as possible and make the allegations with evidence and where the person wasn’t anywhere near the scene of the crime they should drop it very quickly and not smear them.

Is Jimmy Savile guilty? Well, even now, we don’t know if he is. We do know he is dead and is therefore no threat to the BBC or anyone else who expresses the opinion that he was. Yet the BBC was hounded over a producer’s reluctance to play their allegations.

Here Mr Redwood is availing himself of a class of hindsight bias, implying that the BBC should have known of Savile’s guilt all along…

In fact the process of investigating child abuse is long, intensive and above all highly confidential. That’s as much to prevent false or premature accusations against adults leaking into the public domain as to protect the child.

Which takes me back to the question of what’s gotten lost in all of this hysteria, the children themselves. Donald Findlater, of the Stop It Now helpline wrote in the Guardian a few weeks back:

Sexual abuse is as much an abuse of power as anything else. Those with such power – whether by physical strength, position, celebrity, reputation – need to act with respect for and responsibility to those who are more vulnerable.

And, as a civilised society, we need to ensure we offer ongoing support and help to those who have suffered abuse – however many years ago. Those organisations that support victims and survivors, often in the voluntary sector and dependent upon grants and donations, need all our support in order to offer the services that their users need.

So we have crimes committed, children harmed, survivors in need of support and help, organisations with lessons to learn (once we know what they are). That was precisely the case before Jimmy Savile, as it will be when the frenzy has died down. At least one in 10 children in the UK experiences sexual abuse before they reach 18, numbers backed up in recent research by the NSPCC. It may be as many as one in six.

The only thing that will change that dreadful, shameful statistic is if all adults wake up to the reality of abuse and abusers; choose to learn the signs to look out for in children and adults that might indicate sexual abuse; know where to turn to for advice and support so that they do take action that protects a child.

Earlier today Jimmy Mulville tweeted:

That is certainly an issue. But the bigger questions are surely how we tackle child abuse? Surrounded by stigma, shame, in some cases attachment and in others sheer fear and terror of the abuser themselves, prosecutions are tricky.

If after all the inquiries that have been set up in the last few weeks we know more about the subject and the role and behaviours of those involved. Maybe we’ll be in a better position to help not just historic cases but those who are being abused right now.

As for the BBC, it was certainly guilty of ‘looking bad in retrospect’. An unforgivable sin in the minds of its most immovable critics.

In plain speak, if it didn’t have the back up to show the programme, it did not have the means to close down a Christmas special. The conceit upon which most of this controversary began assumed otherwise.

The BBC should hold itself to high standards. But it should resist the temptation, as Dan Hodges puts it, to eat itself for the entertainment of its critics. Newsnight’s oversteer has caused the corporation to lose a DG after just 130 days in place.

  • 130 days. More like fifty something.

  • New Yorker

    There is also the issue of what Mark Thompson knew or should have known. He is scheduled to become President and CEO of the NY Times in a few days. In my opinion that appointment should be delayed until he is fully cleared, or not.

  • MF. The BBC seems to have panicked at their neglect over Saville and are now clumsily trying to make up ground. I don’t think they will ever effectively compensate for their past ‘apparently’ wilful negligence about Savile. paxman is now on the warpath over Newsnight oversight. This will run and run.

  • Harry Flashman

    The BBC at its best is world beating and hopefully it will learn its lessons from this fiasco but by heavens they absolutely fecked up on a mammoth scale on this one. I mean even a half-arsed university student union magazine would have known to run the absolute basic fact checking before running the McAlpine story.

    It’s so redolent of that RTE story about the priest in Africa last year. Zero fact checking, sensationalist reporting, simply assuming that the biased stereotyping of everyone in the newsroom must be true. An elderly Catholic priest is accused by a young black girl of having made her pregnant? Oh sure it ticks all the boxes it must be true.

    So with McAlpine, the Beeb journalists wanted the story to be true, top Tories implicated in paedophile ring abusing vulnerable working class boys, perfect. The leading paedophile was the major funder of that great bete-noire of every BBC staffer the hated Margaret Thatcher, well then it must be true.

    But worse was Entwistle’s appalling admission that despite the fact that the whole world and half of Strabane knew that Newsnight was about to air the allegations on such a sensitive topic involving such a major political figure, he actually had no idea about the story until the day after it aired. That, if true is absolutely mind-blowing. Furthermore he hadn’t even read the BBC’s house journal, The Guardian’s, shocking revelation that the story was a case of mistaken identity because, well he was making a speech that day wasn’t he?

    No, sorry, heads very definitely had to roll with this one, it was an absolute perfect storm of a cock-up.

  • Mick Fealty

    And the retrospective demand that they run a story on Savile with limited evidence; because “we all know he was guilty” (and he cannot sue because he’s dead)?

  • Harry Flashman

    I very specifically refer to the McAlpine mess, it is that which required heads to roll.

    Binning the Saville story was a minor issue, something for the tabloids to get hot and bothered about.

    To deflect criticism for the mishandling or otherwise of Saville by trying to spread muck at the Tories without bothering to check whether their story had a leg to stand on was absolutely inexcusable.

    I hope this shakes up the kneejerk anti-Tory bias in the BBC News department and gives them pause for thought about how their political leanings are now destroying their integrity.

  • Mick Fealty

    Well Harry, there is a very important aspect to the first story onwhich explains why the DG was out of the loop on the second. Dan Sabbagh:

    Except Entwistle probably should not have been alerted. He was nable to be consulted, prevented from being involved in the Newsnight film because he was under investigation for whatever apparently minimal role he had in allowing tributes to Jimmy Savile to go ahead when Newsnight, in an earlier incarnation, had tried and failed to reveal the truth that the late BBC presenter was a sexual abuser. In sum, he was no longer in control of the corporation.”

    In short, the second story follows from the first. It does not excuse it, esp since as Sabbagh notes Legal were involved. But I don’t like feeding frenzies.

  • aquifer

    If we are really serious about protecting children, and child abuse is as endemic as the statistics suggest, we should have legal abortion to ensure that every child is cared for and watched out for.

    Also, some parents are unfit and should have their children removed for adoption, even when this means that a a few of these children may also be abused.

    To support children and track and investigate offences will cost a lot.

    Do we have the stomach to really bear down on this?

    Things never stand still. Welfare reform is likely to make childrens’ position worse in the short term.

  • Mick Fealty

    Further, it seems to me that the early attacks on the Beeb were motivated by an intentional malice and a degree of carelessness about the underlying carelessness in handling the issue of child abuse.

    I do agree with Redwood to this extent: that the BBC should be held to a higher account than its private sector rivals. And that such monumental cock ups be properly dealt with. Oh that justice was so swift in the case of the red tops?

  • Reader

    Mick Fealty: But I don’t like feeding frenzies.
    That would hardly incline you to support the BBC, since participation in a feeding frenzy is the most charitable interpretation of the newsnight fiasco. It’s at least as likely that they screwed up an attempt to brew up a smokescreen.

  • Mick Fealty

    It’s the obscuring of the issue that concerns me most. Otherwise you build your own favourite conspiracy anywhere you like.

  • Harry Flashman

    “Oh that justice was so swift in the case of the red tops?”

    Justice can be very swift for tabloid newspapers if people choose to stop paying to read them.

    Unfortunately no such option exists for those who don’t like the content of the BBC who nonetheless must continue to pay a poll tax levied on tv owners to maintain people like Jeremy Paxman in the very comfortable status to which he and his colleagues have grown so well accustomed.

  • DC

    Personally I don’t think a lot of people will care that a senior Tory was wrongly accused of being part of a paedophile ring, I think the BBC has made far too much out of it, perhaps as a result of other news outlets pushing this story to the hilt after posthumous claims about Saville.

  • Mick Fealty

    I notice you didn’t comment on any of the rest there Harry…

  • Reader

    Mick Fealty: Otherwise you build your own favourite conspiracy anywhere you like.
    I had only suggested they cocked up a cynical ploy. The actual conspiracy theories haven’t got here yet.

  • babyface finlayson

    Entwistle was terrible on Radio4 with Humphrys. Hesitant and evasive, it was clear that he was toast after that.
    It is unbelievable that he knew nothing about the Newsnight programme, until friday afternoon.
    It is tempting to wonder if he preferred to look incompetent rather than admit he knew about it and did nothing.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Rupert Murdoch tweeted to the effect that he “couldn’t accept that the editor in chief did not know what was going on – after all that is what editors are for”.

    The brass neck of it ..

  • Neil

    For me the BBC’s biggest mistake was not canning the Saville tribute until they had the full story. Then obviously jumping on the bandwagon they should have set in motion a year earlier.

    Off topic, but on brass necks how about this?

  • Harry Flashman

    Well Mick you may be right that malice lies behind a lot of the attacks on the BBC, but frankly a lot of people are angry at the BBC for their many persistent failures over the years and their seeming lack of concern about those failures.

    It is therefore understandable that when they shoot themselves in the foot in such a spectacular manner that their critics jump on the bandwagon.

    In fairness it’s precisely the same thing that happened to News International earlier in the year when all those so keen to protect the Beeb now and make excuses for them were so delighted to stick the boot into Murdoch and his unlovely bunch.

  • Covenanter

    As pointed out above this mess has been compounded by the BBC’s anti conservative bias. They were in trouble for not showing the Savile programme, so when Tom Watson stood up in the Commons and made accusations against ‘Thatcher era Tories’ they must have felt a perfect opportunity to deflect attention from their earlier mistakes. Unfortunately they succeeded only by compounding them.

    Hopefully Lord McAlpine will take a lot of people to the cleaners over this. Before you sympathise with the BBC too much imagine walking a mile in his shoes over the past ouple of weeks.

  • Covenanter

    So the former Director General exist with £450,000 in his pocket. Definitely has a Labour bias then.

  • Harry Flashman

    Simon Heffer raises an extremely pertinent point in all of this which has otherwise gone unremarked; where the hell was Chris Patten in all of this?

    He’s getting paid 110,000 quid a year for a three or four day job at the Beeb, his job is not a sinecure, the reason such a man would be appointed to such a post is because it would be assumed his fine-tuned political sensitivities would be of use in making sure the Beeb didn’t do something as jaw-droppingly idiotic as what they did.

    Patten now says that, unlike Entwhistle (slaps head in disbelief), he was aware of the astonishing story in advance and yet he didn’t believe it his job to lift a phone to someone and ask whether they were absolutely certain they had their facts straight.

    What is most gob-smacking is of course the fact that Patten and McAlpine have known each other personally for nearly 40 years, Patten and McAlpine worked together for 15 years at Conservative Central Office, Patten must surely have known the story was nonsense or at least have had his doubts. He was the go-to guy on this one, this was exactly the sort of reason he was appointed to the post, and yet he did nothing.

    I do hope that Patten, the dripping wet, pro-EU, Heathite, didn’t let his personal antipathy to an old Thatcherite adversary in Tory central office cloud his judgment, for if he did he can in no way remain at his post.

  • Mick Fealty

    Emily Bell,

    “The Corporation currently has no director general, no head of audio, and no head of television. Head of news Helen Boaden played a key role in the Savile affair, as she knew of the original program and her department was involved in discussing it with editors.

    Boaden was also reportedly asked before the scandal broke to move to head of audio from head of news, something she refused to do. So effectively the Corporation also has no head of news, Boaden being “quarantined” by the Savile inquiries.”