Media must practice what it preaches on accountability
The media cherishes its role of holding people accountable. Its credibility, therefore, depends on keeping its own house in order. The tabloid phone-hacking scandal in Britain is an egregious failure. A crisis at the BBC, a British institution respected globally, is equally unedifying.
Late last year, two BBC television divisions found themselves working on separate programmes on eccentric DJ and children's entertainer Jimmy Savile following his death. One celebrated his life and extensive charity work. The other investigated long-rumoured allegations that he was a child sex predator, whose victims could number 300, according to Scotland Yard. Such contrasting reports can happen in a monolithic organisation with firewalls to safeguard editorial independence. When the clash was discovered, editors of the scandalous exposé chose to scrap it, a blunder revealed when a rival network aired its investigation of Savile. This prompted charges of a BBC cover-up amid public outrage over the affair.
Such editorial cover-ups pervert free speech and editorial independence. Mark Thompson, the former head of the BBC, on whose watch the alleged cover-up occurred, has since been appointed head of The New York Times. The fallout of the Savile case has followed him to the US, where free speech prevails over restraints and limits accepted elsewhere. That paper's public editor, who writes about editorial issues independently of management, has questioned his fitness to take up his new job next month, saying his integrity and decision-making are a worry. The BBC has aired its own investigation of the affair.
But it will take more than a mea culpa to wipe the stain of revelations that colleagues who suspected Savile's abuse of trust remained silent. The Times and the BBC hold the same professional precepts dear. It would be ironic if Thompson loses his new job because he failed to uphold them in his old one. The affair is a reminder to us all that as the keeper of editorial freedom, we are expected to observe the standards we demand of others.