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Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Cock-up or conspiracy?

A few weeks ago, it emerged that the flagship BBC news and current affairs show 'Newsnight' had declined to run a story alleging that one of the Beeb’s leading stars had been a long-term predatory paedophile; the reason given for pulling the transmission was that there was a lack of evidence. Considering the number of Jimmy Saville stories that are now in the public domain, that seems like quite a remarkable claim.
Then, last Friday, having endured a great deal of criticism in the wake of that decision, someone at the BBC thought that it would be a good idea to run a Newsnight programme alleging that another privileged and powerful man had, over several years, sexually abused a number of vulnerable children. Standards for journalistic rigour had evidently slipped a little after the Saville cancellation, because it was decided that this latest edition could run without the bothersome requirement to accumulate anything resembling a body of evidence.

These grim developments made the resignation of Director General George Entwhistle inevitable; anyone who heard his interview on Saturday morning would have realised that he was already a dead man walking.
But how could so many things have gone wrong in the first place? How could so many reporting guidelines have been ignored? There are very clear rules on what should happen when serious allegations are going to be made against any individual. Given that the Lord McAlpine story was all over the internet at least ten hours before Newsnight went on air on Friday 2nd November, it is truly mind-boggling to discover that a 'right of reply' call wasn't made to the man at the centre of the allegations.

In their haste to run with the story, Newsnight forgot the basic requirement to check the facts. Steve Messham, the man who made the accusations, was not even shown a picture of McAlpine and asked the simple question: “Do you think this is the man who abused you?” Now that he has seen a picture, Mr Messham has stated that McAlpine was definitely not the alleged abuser.

Most commentators have put this mess down to monumental incompetence, but is there just a possibility that there is something more significant at play? The BBC is under fire; it has long-term political opponents who claim that it is ripe for radical reform. It is currently confronted with allegations that it allowed a senior employee -despite persistent rumours and allegations- to not only get away with various sexual offences, but granted him a flagship light entertainment show that allowed guaranteed, continuous access to children.

As the revelations and the resultant media attacks accumulate, anyone inclined to conspiracy theories might suggest that somehow floating the idea that “everyone was at it back then” could be seen as a legitimate part of any defence strategy. Dragging major government figures into the mire might help paint a picture of a pre-PC ‘anything-goes’ culture in which pop stars, politicians and actors could, so long as they were relatively discreet, pursue their somewhat unusual tastes. In the context of such a permissive culture, the BBC's indulgence of Saville and his chums might appear to be just that little bit less heinous.
In mounting this counter-offensive, it would also be in the BBC’s interests to impugn its putative opponents, thereby damaging the credibility of their arguments. Perhaps it is not entirely insignificant that the man at the centre of the unsubstantiated Newsnight allegations, Lord McAlpine, was a senior Tory from the Thatcher era.

So -by default or by design- the debate over the future of the BBC may have taken an unexpected twist. The Director General has gone and it is likely that one or two journalistic heads will also roll, but some might consider that a small price to pay if the institution itself manages to survive the coming storm.
All you have to do is spend a few minutes online and check out any number of discussion boards to realise that, for a significant number of folk, the idea that Margaret Thatcher's cabinet was probably riddled with child molesters is germinating quite nicely. For a beleaguered BBC, faced with implacable opponents threatening root and branch reform of its entire operation, that might turn out to be rather a useful card to play.

But sadly, for whatever else it has achieved, this wretched affair has done nothing to help the cause of any victims of abuse.

1 comment:

  1. I've included your post in this week's Scottish Roundup.

    ReplyDelete