The BBC is currently engulfed in a crisis that has already led to the resignation of the new Director-General George Entwistle after just 7 weeks in the job. Like several previous BBC crises, this one centres around journalistic standards. The difference this time lies in the issue: the reporting (or rather not reporting) of a story involving the BBC itself. The initial problem was the decision not to run a Newsnight story about the TV personality Jimmy Savile and his persistent abuse over many years of vulnerable teenagers, often on BBC premises.
This decision was cautious, to say the least. The crisis became deeper when Newsnight ran on 2 November a story alleging that an unnamed senior Tory politician was involved in persistent paedophilia. This could be seen, in contrast to the first decision, as having been something of a risk (the decision was taken by different people). Risky it certainly was. This story turned out to be wrong… and, despite the problems caused by the first Savile story, it appeared that Entwistle, supposedly the BBC’s editor-in-chief, knew nothing about this second story before it was broadcast. This week, the BBC is also celebrating the 90th anniversary of its first radio broadcast in 1922. This crisis may not the ideal birthday celebration, but is it really, in John Simpson’s words “the worst crisis ever faced by the BBC”?
The last Director General to resign was Greg Dyke back in 2003, along with the Chair of Governors, Gavyn Davies. This was the result of direct government pressure over the invasion of Iraq. The reporter Andrew Gilligan had alleged that the Prime Minister Tony Blair had misled parliament by claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that could be used within 45 minutes. Gilligan, as we now know, was essentially correct. However, he could not ‘stand the story up’ because it relied on a single off-the-record source: the weapons specialist Dr David Kelly who, moreover, did not quite say what Gilligan said he had said. When Kelly’s name was revealed, he was publicly pilloried and subsequently died in mysterious circumstances. Peter Kosminsky made an excellent film about this, The Government Inspector.
A government-commissioned report (the Hutton Inquiry) criticised the BBC’s editorial procedures to such an extent that both Davies and then Dyke were forced to resign: Dyke’s gesture of resignation, probably intended as symbolic, was nevertheless accepted by the acting chair of governors Conservative life peer Lord Ryder. This was the latest in a long line of run-ins with the British government since the 1926 General Strike, all helpfully outlined on the BBC’s website.
NO GOVERNMENTS INVOLVED
Unlike the Iraq/Hutton debacle, the government is merely a bemused bystander to this current crisis. Now, the BBC is tearing itself apart; then, the government came close to tearing the BBC down. It’s vital to remember this, even though questions about the BBC’s standards of reporting and systems of management responsibility are common to both crises. Indeed, the current crisis may well have its roots in the Iraq/Hutton crisis, since many of the procedures put in place as a result of Gilligan’s rather lax reporting are those which have now failed the BBC. But this is no rerun of Iraq/Hutton when the editorial independence of the BBC from government intervention was at stake.
This time the story is less clear cut. It is the result of the revelation that the major TV personality of the 70s and 80s, Jimmy Savile, had persistently abused young women and men. I will write about Savile next week. This current crisis is entirely the result of the BBC’s handling of the revelation.
THE NEWSNIGHT REPORT THAT WASN’T
Jimmy Savile died in October 2011. Immediately, the BBC planned a tribute for the Christmas season. At the same time, it became possible to voice the persistent accusations that he had been involved in sexual abuse of minors. The dead cannot be libelled; the living Savile had been able to prevent the rumours from being published. So, while one part of the BBC was preparing a tribute, another part of the same organisation, BBC2’s respected (but little watched) Newsnight was being offered a story about Savile’s abuse featuring interviews with two or three of his victims. It appears that George Entwistle, then BBC Head of Vision (real-world equivalent = ‘Television’) was told about the possibility of this report, but did not follow it up. Eventually on 9 December, the editor of Newsnight, Peter Rippon, decided not to broadcast the report. His reasons are not known, but may well be after the current internal investigation reaches its conclusions.
The story did not go away, however. It simply found another home on ITV. This was the moment when things began to go wrong for the newly appointed Director General Entwistle. On 28 September (about nine months after Rippon stood the story down), ITV’s Exposure series announced that its 3 October edition would show The Other Side of Jimmy Savile in which several women, one of whom was under 14 at the time, claimed to have been molested by Savile. There was huge press coverage in advance.
The result was an audience share of 21% and the start of an investigation by the Metropolitan Police.
Back at the BBC, things began to fall apart at an alarming rate. During October, Entwistle stood down the editor of Newsnight, Peter Rippon, because his blogged account of his decision was “substantially inaccurate”. Entwistle launched two internal inquiries into the editorial decision and the wider issue of the corporate responsibility in Savile’s actions. He further required that the Head of News Helen Boaden should no longer deal with ‘Savile-related’ issues (a process known as recusing: the process by which judges “excuse themselves from a case because of a possible conflict of interest or lack of impartiality”). These decisions muddied the already lengthy lines of reporting in BBC journalism.
Further, Entwistle and faced a rising tide of accusations that he was himself involved since he did not put a stop to the Christmas 2011 Savile tribute programme. It gradually emerged that he had been told about the Newsnight investigation by none other than Helen Boaden in a hurried conversation at a “busy” Women in Film lunch. Then, by the middle of the month, Panorama had prepared a programme (shown 22 October) investigating what had gone wrong in the Newsnight decision not the screen the original report. The anger and dismay of the Newsnight reporter, Liz MacKean, and producer Meirion Jones were palpable, as was the perplexity of their principal interviewee Karin Ward, an abuse victim who yet again felt that her testimony was not being taken seriously. Over 5 million watched this programme, gaining it a 38.9% share. The next day, Entwistle faced the Commons Select Committee on Broadcasting and was accused of a “lamentable lack of curiosity” about what was going on in his own organisation. Entwistle’s position was seen as “difficult”, but he remained in post.
NEWSNIGHT DOES IT AGAIN!
Meanwhile Newsnight was seeking to salvage its journalistic reputation, smarting under the ignominy of being investigated by its internal BBC rival, Panorama. It was being run by an acting editor as the editor Peter Rippon had been forced to “step aside” while his handling of the Savile story was investigated. Angus Stickler, a former BBC journalist now working for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism at City University recalled a story he had covered a few years previously: the unsatisfactory investigation and judicial report on the sustained abuse of children in a North Wales care home. One of the victims, Steve Messham, had seemingly identified a “senior figure in the conservative party” as one of the many abusers. Stickler contacted him, sold the idea to Newsnight, and a report was quickly prepared with Stickler seconded to Newsnight for the duration. Messham named no names in the report. However, on the day of broadcast, 2 November, the head of the Bureau at City University tweeted that a senior conservative, already named by sundry internet sources, would be outed by the Newsnight report. So it was obvious who Messham was referring to, and gradually the name emerged from internet murk to press daylight as being “former Tory treasurer Lord MacAlpine”. Inconveniently, this was simply not true as the Guardian definitively revealed on 9 November, one week after the broadcast. Messham, incredibly, had not been shown a photo of MacAlpine by Stickler. When eventually shown a photo after the Newsnight transmission, he immediately said that this was definitely not the member of the MacAlpine family who had been involved in the abuse. The frail MacAlpine returned from Italy to rebut the allegations, and Entwistle launched his third internal inquiry into journalistic procedures in the BBC. But it didn’t stop there. Entwistle had to make an unreserved apology and defend his organisation in public.
On Saturday 10 November he faced John Humphries on the BBC’s own Radio 4 programme Today. Never an easy interviewer, Humphries was determined singlehandedly to restore the reputation of BBC journalistic independence. Entwistle’s performance was dismal. He did not see the Newsnight film before broadcast; he was not aware of the tweet about its contents; he did not see the film when it was broadcast because, like many sensible citizens, he “was out” on Friday night. His constant refrain was “this was not brought to my attention”, while Humphries adopted his best exasperated schoolmaster routine. “Where was your natural curiosity?” asked Humphries. After ten minutes of this, Entwistle was utterly rattled, his voice becoming more strained, and his claims of a wider picture of a successful BBC became increasingly hollow. By that evening, he had resigned as Director General after just seven weeks in the job.
FIND THE REASONS RATHER THAN DO THE BLAMING
So what had happened? The immediate problem with the Newsnight report was that Entwistle had failed to “ensure that the right people were in the right positions to make the right decisions”, as he defined his role as DG to John Humphries. No-one was sure where the responsibility lay, beyond the acting editor of Newsnight, for the second story. All “Savile-related” issues had to go through a special editorial chain set up after the first report, but no-one really knew how to classify the second story. Was it Savile-related or not? So a DG who believed in structure had, by his decisions in this issue, messed up the structure.
Then we have the DG and his staff, who clearly thought, against all evidence, that it was sufficient to allow the BBC structures to go to work and all would be well. Instead, the structures had become the substitute for working intelligently and for making difficult judgements. One structure was set up to ensure the independence of BBC journalism. That meant apparently that the editor-in-chief was never told what was going on. Compliance procedures were in place to ensure that journalistic values were rigorously adhered to. But these failed to prevent the elementary mistakes made by Stickler in the second report: not checking who Messham really meant, and not trying to contact MacAlpine (as Channel 4’s Michael Crick, an ex-Newsnight man, had done that day). In the minds of Entwistle’s entourage, the structures were in place and that should be that. But it wasn’t.
The BBC’s fundamental problem is the way that it operates a compliance culture. At all levels, individuals are required to go through compliance processes: to make sure that the correct procedures are followed and are seen to be followed. Compliance has replaced judgement; doing it correctly has replaced doing it right. Left to his own devices, Entwistle might have sorted this out, but only as a by-product of this proposed simplification of the BBC’s bureaucratic structures. He was a bureaucrat first and foremost. And his responses to his interrogators in the commons and on his own organisation’s flagship radio current affairs show all prove the same thing: he had no real vision for the BBC, despite having been its director of Vision.
A new Director General will be appointed quickly: the ink is scarcely dry on the last shortlist after all. It cannot be anyone similar to Entwistle, and that may prove to be the best 90th birthday present that the BBC could get… so long as the vultures who circle whenever the BBC is in trouble do not get their way first.
JOHN ELLIS is Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway University of London. He is the author of Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation (Routledge 2011), TV FAQ (IB Tauris 2007), Seeing Things (IB Tauris 2000) and Visible Fictions (1984). Between 1982 and 1999 he was an independent producer of TV documentaries through Large Door Productions, working for Channel 4 and BBC. He is chair of the British Universities Film & Video Council and leads the Royal Holloway team working on EUscreen. His publications can be found HERE.