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.
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:
We need to speak up in defence of the BBC.The press have a vested interest is disabling it. You won’t know how good it was until its gone.
— Jimmy Mulville (@hattrickster) November 10, 2012
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.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty