“To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
—Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
A very British crisis needs a very British epigraph. The BBC has lost not one, but two directors general in the space of three months. The first, Mark Thompson, left the Corporation under what seemed like orderly circumstances to take up a post as chief executive of The New York Times, a job he officially starts on Monday. The circumstances of the second departure are far messier. George Entwistle, who had been in the job barely more than a month, did “the honorable thing” on Friday and resigned after two editorial mistakes made by the formerly well regarded BBC program Newsnight made his position untenable.
Entwistle’s resignation on Saturday was directly linked to a report broadcast by Newsnight on November 2 that misidentified a public figure allegedly involved in a child abuse scandal. The report, connected to an already broiling scandal, did not make things any worse, theoretically, for Thompson. But the BBC he left is now facing a very serious challenge to its future and independence.
The turmoil at the BBC started with a revelation involving a now-dead TV presenter and public figure, Jimmy Savile, who is accused of molesting possibly hundreds of children. US commentators have tried to explain Savile to the domestic audience, but there really is no parallel here. (For those who really want to understand the deep roots of the scandal, you can do no better than to read Andrew O’Hagan’s essay in the London Review of Books.) The allegations against Savile were being investigated by Newsnight last year, but its editor, Peter Rippon, decided not to run the investigation on the grounds that the evidence was not sound enough. Subsequently, rival broadcaster ITV pulled together a documentary carrying the allegations against Savile, making the BBC’s decision not to run the original piece seem both flawed and possibly compromised. Just as Entwistle succeeded Thompson as director general, the story of how the BBC had shelved its piece broke.
Two internal inquiries were ordered, and the speculation over what had happened at the BBC ran rife on social media, across newspapers, websites, and on the BBC itself. The Corporation is public property in the UK, and with it can come both a strong sense of pride and institutional love, but also a visceral and inclusive criticism and calls for heads to roll.
The most preposterous and fitting denouement to the whole horrible affair happened when, in an attempt to prove itself institutionally robust, Newsnight commissioned a second piece into another child abuse scandal. The show broadcast its investigation on November 2, conducted with the London-based Bureau for Investigative Journalism. Including details about an alleged pedophile, the report led to the misidentification of a former member of a Conservative government as being involved in a North Wales care-home scandal after the central witness interviewed misidentified his abuser. Failing to conduct a sufficiently thorough cross-checking of the victim’s evidence, or even to show him a picture of the former politician, were basic journalistic errors. To make matters worse, the Bureau’s editorial head, Iain Overton, had foreshadowed the “exclusive” by tweeting about it earlier in the day. So in scrambling to address the perception that it was timid in breaking stories about pedophilia, Newsnight’s overcompensation has led to a potentially ruinous situation of the BBC creating false rumors.
There are two separate issues in play with all this that have become toxically intertwined. One is the existence of an endemic culture of child abuse in a number of British institutions, and the other is about the editorial independence and journalistic future of the BBC.
The Corporation currently has no director general, no head of audio, and no head of television. Head of news Helen Boaden played a key role in the Savile affair, as she knew of the original program and her department was involved in discussing it with editors. Boaden was also reportedly asked before the scandal broke to move to head of audio from head of news, something she refused to do. So effectively the Corporation also has no head of news, Boaden being “quarantined” by the Savile inquiries. Entwistle was struck by a hurricane of circumstances without the institutional shelter and support someone who runs a 25,000-strong organization would normally expect.