Tuesday, 13 November 2012

In Defence of the BBC

Bashing the Beeb sounds like it should be a euphemism, but it’s fast turning into a new national pastime, taking over from the short-lived but intimately related sport of Hunt the Celebrity Paedophile. The Beeb came late to this sport, with the result that they missed the opportunity to be the first channel to bring it to the masses in 2011, and then tried too hard to play catch-up last week. And now the media have moved on from this sport and on to Bringing down the Beeb, a Jenga-like game where they aim to take out as many BBC executives as it takes for the ancient structure to collapse.

First up, of course, had to be George Entwistle, the hapless Director-General whose 54 days in office represents the most disastrous short-term tenure since Brian Clough took the helm at Leeds United in 1974. David Peace is probably writing the book about it already.
Entwistle’s ‘crime’ was to behave like a rabbit caught in the headlights when faced with the Lord McAlpine allegations. The headlights were the flurry of accusations levelled at the Beeb over its decision not to air allegations about Jimmy Savile. Blinded by these, it immediately jumped at the chance to redeem itself by outing another public figure. The cautiousness it showed about Savile had got it into trouble and it wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice. The end result was a story that soon fell apart, but it was a story they would never have run if the glare of the Savile headlights hadn’t been harming its ability to make rational decisions.
Now they are condemned for doing what they failed to do in 2011, which is to run a story without double and triple checking the facts first. They can’t win. And not just on the expose that wasn’t. If Entwistle hadn’t quit there would have been demands for him to be sacked and allegations of contempt at their failure to react given the significance of the mistake, but once he did the honourable thing and resigned, there was an immediate reaction against the £450,000 payoff he gets. The payoff was included in terms of employment drafted long before anyone knew the BBC could get caught up in a crisis that appears to be this large. It equates to one year’s salary. To me it seems entirely reasonable and indeed less generous compared to ‘get-out’ clauses in other Chief Executive’s contracts. Next to what it took to get rid of Bob Diamond, who presided over a bigger institutional disaster at Barclays, it’s peanuts. And even if it isn’t, the issue is the BBC appointing people on contracts that give them a year’s salary if they resign, rather than giving a year’s salary in this instance. But in Bringing down the Beeb, finer details are avoided and glossed over.
This brings us to a closer examination of what the Beeb did and didn’t do in relation to Savile and McAlpine. In the case of Savile they chose not to report allegations that, for all they appear to be genuine and the tip of an iceberg, are still unproven in a court of law. They were allegations that, for whatever reason, were not pursued while Savile was alive. If they had gone ahead with the Newsnight report, and the allegations had turned out to be unsubstantiated, the public reaction would have been outrage. ‘The memory of charitable hero Savile being defamed so soon after his death and with him unable to defend himself. How disgusting’, would have been the condemnation from the newspapers that now condemn them for not publishing it, in spite of never running stories about him themselves.
In the case of McAlpine, the BBC reported allegations without naming the alleged offender, responding to the general public frenzy for anyone who might possibly have ever done, or been accused of, anything to be named and shamed. The internet did the rest. How does this differ to the wave of super injunctions we were told were stifling the press and protecting the guilty last year? The only difference is that the allegation turned out to be misplaced. Is that enough to justify the wholesale witch hunt and seeming desire for destruction of the BBC that is going on now?
Okay we expect the BBC to have higher journalistic standards than tabloid newspapers, but it’s still worth noting that allegations and retractions have been going on for years and normally they are settled with compensation and apologies, not wholesale resignations, unless they achieve the same scale and critical mass as the phone hacking scandal, which this one doesn’t.
Of course it’s distressing for McAlpine to be named, but various other celebrities have been accused, arrested, and even prosecuted, in relation to underage sex or rape allegations that have turned out to be false. The law and the press have not afforded them anonymity. One or two bad journalistic decisions do not constitute a major crisis and should not be allowed to bring down a great broadcaster, but that’s what it seems the media are hell bent on doing. In the meantime, the genuine victims of child abuse in the Welsh care home are forgotten and the caution that lead to the Savile story being shelved last year may re-appear just as quickly as it went, with obvious consequences for other famous perpetrators and their victims.
It’s time for some perspective. Large sections of the public got caught in a shameful moment of voyeuristic desire, insanely excited by the imminent naming of famous paedophiles. That desire lead to an ill-advised decision to jump the gun, and now the people who caused them to make that decision, by stoking the desire, deny all responsibility and turn on the organisation that made the decision, without considering how easily it could have been them in the firing line instead. It’s time to move on from Beeb bashing and get back to real stories and sensible behaviour.