The BBC, everyone seems to agree, is in crisis. Its Director General has resigned after less than 8 weeks in the job, its most distinguished current affairs programme may be shut down in shame, and there is talk of the BBC itself being slimmed down, even broken up. But of what exactly does the crisis consist? And what is to be done about it?
At the heart of the current debate about the BBC are three issues that constantly get conflated. The first is the question of the journalistic failures that led to the immediate problems facing the organisation. The second is the broader social and political culture within which the BBC operates and which helped shape those journalistic failures. And third, there is the question of what should be the social and cultural role of the BBC.
The current crisis has developed as a result of two investigations conducted by the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight. The first, which exposed Jimmy Savile, for many years a key BBC entertainer, as a serial child abuser, should probably have been broadcast but was not. The second, an investigation into child abuse at a children’s home in North Wales in the 1970s and 1980s should definitely not have been broadcast but was.
The story of Savile’s abuse was eventually picked up by ITV and has come, almost surreally, to dominate news in Britain over the past two months. Many, including some Newsnight journalists, allege that the BBC’s investigation had been spiked not for editorial reasons but because the broadcaster did not want to detract from two planned Christmas tributes to Savile. Stung perhaps by criticism of its earlier failure to broadcast the Savile investigation, Newsnight last month aired a new investigation into child abuse, this time at Bryn Estyn, a children’s home in North Wales. The Bryn Estyn scandal had been big news in Britain in the 1990s and had led to a major police investigation and an exhaustive public inquiry. There have been persistent claims over the past decade of a cover-up both in the police investigation and the public inquiry. Newsnight picked up on those claims and suggested that children at the home were groomed for sexual abuse by a ring of Establishment paedophiles that included ‘a senior Tory party politician from the Thatcher years’. The programme did not name the Tory politician supposedly involved. Many on the Internet did, pointing the finger at Lord McAlpine, former Conservative Party treasurer. The trouble was, the claim was false and defamatory. The BBC has had to issue an unreserved apology and pay £185,000 in damages. It is likely that many others will have to do the same.
The extraordinary litany of journalistic failure that led to the Newsnight fiasco has been laid bare, not least by BBC’s internal MacQuarrie inquiry. The key evidence in the Newsnight report lay in the claims of Steve Messham, who had been a child in Bryn Estyn and had been a victim of sexual abuse. Messham’s allegations had already been investigated, by the police, the public Inquiry and the BBC itself. No one doubted that Messham had been a victim of sex abuse. But every investigation concluded that he was mistaken in his understanding of who had abused him. Newsnight journalists ignored those conclusions. They did not show Messham a photo of McAlpine; when finally he did see a photo, he accepted that the Tory grandee had not been the man who had abused him. Nor did any Newsnight journalist contact McAlpine for a comment.
In part this catastrophic series of basic journalistic blunders might be attributable to the BBC’s infamously bloated but weak management structure, a structure that contains few clear lines of responsibility and accountability, and that accommodates layers of executives in ill-defined posts often detached from any creative output. The claim by George Entwistle, the recently departed director general, that he neither asked about the content of the original Savile investigation, nor knew that Newsnight was planning to broadcast allegations about a ‘top Tory’, may seem extraordinary to most people. But in the context of the BBC’s management style it perhaps makes sense.
The problems of BBC management were made worse by the weakening of editorial control after the furore over the original never-broadcast Savile investigation. The editor of Newsnight Peter Rippon had ‘stepped aside’ from his duties, while both the director of BBC News, Helen Boaden, and her deputy Steven Mitchell, were told they no longer had editorial responsibility for Savile-related news pending the conclusion of an inquiry into their involvement in Newsnight‘s aborted investigation. The MacQuarrie report suggests that, as a result, no one knew who was responsible for approving Newsnight‘s Bryn Estyn film. A journalistic car crash was just waiting to happen.
The problem lies, however, much deeper than simply the structure of BBC management. The Newsnight report emerged out of a broader political and social culture in which the line between news and gossip has become dangerously blurred, in which conspiracy theories are all too readily believed, and in which both politicians and the media feed off moral panics.
The week before the Newsnight report, Labour MP Tom Watson, who had made his name through his investigation of the News International phone hacking scandal, stood up in the House of Commons and claimed to have come across ‘clear intelligence suggesting a powerful paedophile network linked to parliament and No 10’. He wrote in the Daily Mirror of having received dozens of allegations that went ‘way beyond the claims made on BBC Newsnight’. Some of his correspondents, he informed us on his blog, had ‘named powerful people – some of them household names – who abused children with impunity’, including ‘a former cabinet minister who regularly abused young boys’. He had been told about ‘mysterious early deaths, disappeared children, suspicious fires, intimidation and threats.’ He claimed, too, that his own life was under threat, claiming to have received ‘warnings’ that his ‘personal safety is imperiled if I dig any deeper’.
This was rumour-mongering at its worst. These are the kinds of allegations that, you might think, should be treated with considerable skepticism. Yet, far from being viewed critically, such evidence-light claims have become the currency of the debate. The week after the Newsnight programme David Cameron was interviewed on ITV. Live on air, journalist Phillip Schofield presented the Prime Minister with a piece of paper that he had ’run off the Internet’ containing names of prominent politicians who were supposedly paedophiles. ‘Are you going to investigate them?’, he asked Cameron. The following day one national newspaper reported the encounter under the headline ‘Paedo Tories Outed on Live TV’.
The very day that the Newsnight report was broadcast, Twitter was alive with the rumour about the identity of the ‘senior Tory party politician from the Thatcher years’. Who was spreading that rumour? Not just conspiracy theorists on the fringes of debate, but leading journalists and politicians. Prominent Labour Party activist Sally Bercow tweeted ‘Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*.’ Guardian columnist and leading environmentalist George Monbiot similarly produced a series of nudge-nudge, wink-wink tweets, such as ‘I can confirm that Lord #McAlpine was Conservative Party treasurer when Mrs Thatcher was prime minister’ and ‘Historical fact of the week: Lord #McAlpine was a well-known treasurer of the Conservative Party during the Thatcher era’.
Watson. Schofield. Bercow. Monbiot. These are not people at the edge of political debate or journalistic life but at the very heart of it. They have helped turn rumour-mongering, witch-hunting and conspiracy-theorizing into public sports.
Child abuse is clearly an issue that touches some of our deepest emotions. Most people would want those who have been abused to receive justice and for those who have abused to be brought to justice. But it is precisely because the issue can be so emotionally heart-wrenching that we need to take a cool-headed, rational view of every allegation, rather than simply assume them to be true.
It is not, however, just on the issue of child abuse that rumour gets passed off as fact, gossip as news, and conspiracy theories become acceptable. The discussion of everything from 9/11 to the MMR vaccine has become surrounded by a swirl of fiction. The kinds of ideas that used to inhabit the fringes of political debate now increasingly occupy centre stage. What constitutes ‘news’ has transformed in the past 20 years. The line between comment and news has become blurred, opinion has increasingly come to be taken as fact. At the same time, politics has become less ideological, and more tribal. A more tribal politics makes it easier to demonise political opponents as monsters, without any evidence.
The Newsnight programme was, in other words, not an isolated error, but part of a political and social culture that has become less critical and less rational, and less willing to employ skepticism and reason to separate fact from fiction, news from gossip, truth from rumour. None of this excuses Newsnight and its journalistic failures. It does show, however, that the problem lies much deeper than one current affairs programme, or one broadcaster or one particular management structure.
All of which leads us to the third issue: what should be the social and cultural role of the BBC? Perhaps the key problem for the BBC is that it no longer has a sense of what kind of institution it is. It was originally created as a ‘public service broadcaster’ whose role was, in the words of its founder Lord Reith, to ‘educate, inform and entertain’. The BBC was supposed provide what the market could not or would not. At the same time the BBC was a state broadcaster, sensitive to the needs of the British government and of the governing class. Over the years, the BBC’s coverage of everything from Britain’s wars to the British monarchy has been shaped, and distorted, by its perceived role as the nation’s official voice. More recently it has also become a broadcaster that seeks to compete for audience ratings with commercial broadcasters. From reality TV to dumbed-down documentaries, the BBC has all too often taken a philistine’s view of what the audience wants and needs. In reality, the audience is not nearly so lacking in intelligence, or dismissive of ‘high’ culture, as broadcast executives seem to think it is. But the tendency of the market is to settle on the lowest common denominator answer.
The BBC is not alone in having to face up to these kinds of transformations. A host of public institutions, from art galleries to universities, are being buffeted by similar social changes. Take universities. Almost forty years ago, the Robbins inquiry into British higher education argued for the expansion of universities on the grounds that learning was a good in itself. ‘The search for truth is an essential function of the institutions of higher education’, it observed, ‘and the process of education is itself most vital when it partakes in the nature of discovery.’ The recent Browne report on universities takes a very different approach ‘Higher education matters’, it insists, ‘because it… helps produce economic growth, which in turn contributes to national prosperity.’ Universities have come to be seen as businesses, students as consumers and knowledge as purely instrumental. Those same notions seem to have captured many in BBC management too. The view of broadcasting has shifted from being a public good in itself to being a commodity whose worth is to be instrumentally assessed.
The consequence of all this has been a crisis of identity within the BBC, and a tendency to lurch from one calamity to another because the organization cannot define what it is for or what it should do. This in turn has allowed the sharks to smell blood and talk ever more loudly of dispensing with the licence fee, or breaking up the BBC.
I am a great believer in the BBC and of what it stands for. Or rather of what it could and should stand for. To defend the BBC we need to do more than simply defend the institution. We need to defend the ideals of public service broadcasting. I would not wish to suggest that there was ever a ‘golden age’ of broadcasting or that Reithian ideals are in some way exemplary. And yet it is important to promote the concept of the public service broadcaster as an institution that is driven by the needs neither of the market nor of the state, but by a broader conception of broadcasting as a public good, to foster the idea of an institution whose raison d’être is to speak neither solely to a cultural elite nor to as wide an audience as possible, but to be simultaneously both elitist and universal, an institution that sees itself as shaping its audience as much as being shaped by it. There are many BBC programmes that rise, or attempt to rise, to that challenge. Indeed Newsnight, or at least Newsnight as it used to be, was one of them. But overall, the BBC has become uncertain as to what kind of institution it is, of what its mission should be. The fundamental problem with the BBC today is not its journalistic lapses, or its particular management structure, but that uncertainty about its ideals and about what it is to be a public service broadcaster.