On the BBC and the Jimmy Savile crisis

Image: Beacon

It must be truly awful to be accused of being a paedophile. We should have nothing but sympathy for Lord McAlpine and his family. While he can now take comfort that almost everyone now knows there is no truth in the accusations thrown at him by  Newsnight, the BBC has subjected him to “slander more cruel, revolting and idiotic than anything perpetrated by the News of the World” as Boris Jonson said in his Telegraph column.

But this needn’t be the end of the BBC, as some people are calling for. Nor even the end of the BBC as we know it. What is needed are small adjustments, a little restructuring, rather than big, swiping and bloody surgery that would only increase the chances of further scandals.

The BBC has to have our trust, just like any other news organisation. Back in July 2007, when London was hit twice in as many weeks, swathes of people turned to the BBC for the information they so desperately needed. It was the same on the 11th September 2001. When disaster hits, when we really want to know what’s going on, we turn to the BBC, and 99% of the time, it gets it right.

But without trust, it may as well not exist. If you can’t read, watch or listen to something and know that it is the closest thing that the organisation has to truth at that moment, look elsewhere. Now, I don’t deny for a second that the BBC has lost some of the nation’s trust. But it’s still far and away the best news organisation in the world.

Maybe the best piece of evidence I have for this is the way in which the BBC has reported on itself over the past few weeks. It has held its hands up and said “yes – we made these mistakes, and this is what has happened.” Others will disagree with me, but I didn’t see The Times or The News of the World report on itself in the same way. News International sat on the evidence for years, and hoped it would never come out. That’s undeniable.

Now, maybe the key question in this whole case is whether or not the BBC acted in the same way. Was there a cover up of the Savile investigation, or was the story dropped because the evidence they had was seriously brought into question? Did the BBC want to broadcast a Christmas tribute documentary at all costs, or were they simply too heavy-handed in applying the editorial guidelines and procedures they failed to do so nine months later in the McAlpine case?

The answer to that question is one that will have serious repercussions. If my gut-feeling is wrong, and key figures at the BBC abandoned their journalistic integrity to protect the reputation of one of their most loved former stars, then they should lose their jobs and the governors need to seriously think about how to prevent the opportunity for such a cover-up ever occuring again. But if I’m right, and it turns out that the Savile allegations were shelved because of an editorial decision made in good faith, then yes, we need to look at how we prevent such mistakes being made again, but we hardly need to start ripping out the floorboards of Broadcasting House.

Boris Johnson referred to the branding of McAlpine as a paedophile as “the real tragedy.” People would likewise say the same about the lack of accusations against Savile for so long. But let’s not forget that the real tragedy is that so many of these sickening offences still go unpunished in today’s society. McAlpine was wrongly identified, yes, but who was the perpetrator of such appalling crimes? How many other cases of child abuse within public institutions went on during this time? Is it still going on today?

I still trust the BBC to find out.