for a diverse, democratic and accountable media
Posted by Tim Gopsill
A year ago, in November 2011, the BBC faced a decision that it wasn't even aware of – a mighty decision that would land it in deep trouble, and define the direction in which it is heading.
Jimmy Savile had died on October 30. Unknown to each other and separated by a corporate “Chinese wall", two departments started preparing conflicting programmes about his life. Unconsciously, as a corporate body, the BBC decided to broadcast one and not the other – a catastrophic decision, but one that can be easily understood.
The blame has been piled on editor Peter Rippon's spiking of Liz MacKean's Newsnight investigation, but that was not such a bad decision. Editors have to face tough calls, and for BBC editors, with their studied independence from management, they're tougher still. Independence carries responsibility; there's no-one to turn to.
To have followed it through would have been a big risk for Peter Rippon. No-one else had run the story, and though Savile was dead and couldn't sue, powerful interests would have been upset: police, the whole do-good industry – charities, fund-raisers, hospitals – all would have been severely embarrassed. But most damaged of all would have been the BBC itself. Hardly surprising, if deplorable, that he lost his nerve.
Meanwhile, the other BBC was pressing on with its tributes to Savile – and that's where it went wrong. With all the collective memory of the behaviour of Savile over the years, the BBC was stupid, complacent and obtuse to produce these shows, whether Newsnight was investigating or not.
The fault at the BBC was not dropping the Newsnight story but running the tribute. And the blame should rest with Mark Thompson, Director-General at the time. He had set the course of BBC for the previous eight years, effectively abandoning the production of challenging journalism. Thompson was brought in to steady the ship -- that is, to make concession after concession to government -- after the BBC's crushing defeat by the Blair government over the Hutton Report and the reporting of the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Yet he has had a fairly easy time of it. Opprobrium is applied instead onto the hapless pair of Peter Rippon and George Entwistle, the walking briefcase appointed as Thompson's successor.
It's hardly worth pointing out that the popular newspapers that are dumping the manure, by the bucket load, are in no position to do so. They too had heard the stories over the years, launched their investigations … and spiked them. None of them, naturally, have been done over by the rest of the press, let alone subjected themselves to rigorous self-examination, as the BBC has.
None of them are asking or being asked whether perhaps young women who find themselves involved with them, perhaps as interns or trainees keen to get on, or as young models or wannabe minor celebs, might be taken advantage of by middle-aged men with jobs or bylines or friendly stories in their gift. No, take no notice – ever – of what the tabloid press to say about the BBC.
The BBC's habitual public self-flagellation – they did it after Hutton as well – can be painful to watch, but it is a public body and rightly subject to public scrutiny. So no complaint about that, nor, indeed, about the system of separating management from editorial.
It is not ridiculous, but correct, that journalists operate independently, even if they make dubious decisions. The problem is not that the bosses can close the stories down, because they can't, but the opposite: that editorial is not independent enough.
The editor's independence is not backed with sufficient confidence and authority. Whatever the formal position, Peter Rippon clearly felt he had to second-guess the top brass, to fall in line with the BBC's priorities.
And with that momentous choice, to broadcast 10 minutes of a difficult and contentious expose, or an hour of easy and predictable corporate self-glorification, the outcome had got to be the second. That's the way the BBC is.
What it needs is not more criticism but more support, to give its journalists the confidence to carry through with the difficult stories.