The short answer is ‘a tremendous muddle’. In the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal, allegations have been made of sexual abuse of vulnerable youngsters by other prominent figures.
Some arrests have resulted. Readers will remember that the BBC had withdrawn a Newsnight programme, which exposed Savile, then, following a public outcry, changed its mind and broadcast it, with additions, on Panorama.
Now Newsnight has broadcast another report on child abuse, a report which, it rapidly appeared, had not been cross-checked.
Steve Messham, a former inmate of a children’s home in Wrexham, appeared on the programme, mentioning ‘a prominent Tory politician’ as the man who had abused him. He had, off air, identified Lord McAlpine as the ‘senior Tory’.
Later, he admitted that he had made a mistake and apologised to Lord McAlpine. Almost unbelievably, it was only when someone showed him a photograph of Lord McAlpine that the penny dropped.
The Guardian, apparently, had flagged the programme on its website a day before it went out. Tweeters, some of them people in the public eye, tweeted identifications of McAlpine on their own account. This was discussed in feverish tones by the London media world.
Despite this, however, one prominent member of that media world, having been ‘out’ that evening, contrived to remain in ignorance of the subject until the morning after it was broadcast. This was, almost incredibly, the newly elected Director General of the BBC, George Entwistle. He was bulldozed out of his ignorance by John Humphries, the implacable presenter of the BBC’s own Today programme on Radio 4, and soon after resigned from the job he had held for just 54 days.
Entwistle had already been under fire for having, allegedly, aborted the planned screening of the Newsnight programme on Jimmy Savile late last year. (The director of the programme has said, however, that he dropped it of his own accord because for journalistic reasons.)
Be that as it may, the situation was radically changed by the resuscitation and broadcast of the programme. It made sexual abuse of minors the question of the hour, and a very hot potato.
Moreover, it had led to suggestions, which rapidly hardened into conviction, that Savile was by no means the only offender of this kind. It seems, therefore, to beggar belief that Entwistle remained, and was allowed to remain, in ignorance of Newsnight’s report on paedophilia until the morning after it was broadcast.
Entwistle may have been promoted above his level of competence. Or he might have been economical with the truth in a failed attempt to get out of the hole he had, it was believed, partially dug himself. Or, had he known about the Newsnight report, he might have supposed that Newsnight knew its own business.
As it was, he was forced to accept that as Director General he was ultimately responsible and must therefore resign. He left behind him a situation in which the BBC’s enemies were given the opportunity to lay into it on all their favourite grounds. Its independence puts it outside government control.
The annual licence fee is a compulsory levy on virtually every household in the country. Its leadership is in the hands of people who know no other world than their own and who tend, so it is said, to be vain. Furthermore, there are too many of them
Another important figure in the BBC hierarchy, Lord Patten, Chairman of the BBC Trust, has also been criticised.
Once he was thought of as the archetypal safe pair of hands. But he holds various other well-paid posts, which probably on occasion eat into the three days per week he is supposed to spend looking after the BBC.
A number of people, however, including Sir David Attenborough, have asserted that the BBC is loved by a large majority of the British people.
Personally, I trust that fair-minded judgment and distrust the motives of those who rant about the licence fee, the political tone of some programmes and the awful rubbish broadcast on the more populist channels. If the BBC doesn’t aim to provide everything legal that people of various backgrounds and levels of education and thoughtfulness actually want, it will have lost its reason for being.
But at present, the BBC desperately needs a period without further scandals and upsets and, with all possible speed, a new Director General.