BBC faces credibility crisis over botched paedophile probes

Plunged into crisis following astonishing errors of judgment over news reports about child abuse, the BBC finds its credibility at an all-time low

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2012, 3:08am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2012, 3:52am

They are words that the BBC isn’t accustomed to hearing about itself: “shoddy journalism” on one of its premier investigative programmes, “unacceptable mistakes” by senior staff, a director general with “the leadership qualities of Winnie the Pooh”.

The august British broadcaster, one of the world’s biggest media brands, is battling mounting criticism and outright ridicule as it scrambles to contain its worst crisis in years. Public faith in “the Beeb” has plunged as the result of one programme on an alleged child molester that it didn’t air – and one that, unfortunately, it did, falsely implicating a former politician.

It is hard to overstate just how enormous a role the BBC plays in British public life through its widely admired news reporting and its portfolio of dramas, documentaries and other offerings on television and radio. Even government officials who grumble about a perceived liberal bias acknowledge that the organisation is a major conduit throughout the world of British “soft power”.

The crisis began with the revelation that the BBC had abruptly shelved an investigation last year by its Newsnight programme into allegations of child sexual abuse by the late Jimmy Savile, a disc jockey and popular host of a BBC children’s show. The corporation was preparing a lavish tribute to Savile at the time the Newsnight episode was pulled, although the editor who made the decision denies any link.

The accusations against Savile have since avalanched, with police now investigating hundreds of potential cases of molestation. Critics have even speculated about the existence of a paedophile ring within the BBC, which has launched two separate independent inquiries into the scandal.

To make matters worse, Newsnight then broadcast an episode on November 2 on allegations of sex abuse at a children’s home in Wales, which implicated a former Conservative Party grandee. But Newsnight apparently did not try to contact the man for a response to the allegations. He robustly denied them, and his accuser subsequently admitted identifying the wrong person. The BBC was forced to issue an abject apology.

Director general George Entwistle, only weeks in the job, insisted he knew nothing about the programme until after it appeared. But because the director general also serves as the broadcaster’s nominal editor-in-chief, he took responsibility and stepped down on Saturday from his post overseeing a staff of more than 20,000.

The BBC turmoil follows a scandal-ridden couple of years for the UK press. London police, in addition to investigating claims that Savile may have used his position as a television host and volunteer with various charitable groups to sexually abuse more than 300 people as far back as 1959, are still looking into claims that reporters at Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, owner of the most-read UK newspapers, hacked into mobile phones and bribed police for stories.

Analysts say that much of the heavy criticism now engulfing the organisation is opportunistic, particularly from politicians who resent its influence and from Britain’s tabloids, which have had their own turn at the whipping post thanks to the phone-hacking scandal.

The Sun, owned by News Corp, on Sunday blared “Bye Bye Chum”, a play on the broadcaster’s initials, on its front page, alongside a photo of Entwistle, ousted after only 54 days in the jobs, albeit with a £450,000 (HK$5.5 million) pay-off, equivalent to his annual salary.

“It’s being deliberately exaggerated by the BBC’s traditional enemies and critics,” said Steven Barnett, a journalism professor at the University of Westminster. “That’s not to say it’s not serious, and I think it is a crisis in the normal sense of the word. But the sky is not about to fall in, nor is the world about to end.”

Former cabinet minister David Mellor said Entwistle was not up to dealing with the twin scandals and the harsh scrutiny they invited. “George, bless his heart, had the leadership qualities of Winnie the Pooh when it came to the outside world,” he said.

The corporation’s acting director general, Tim Davie, admitted the BBC’s multilayered management structure “led to some fuzzy decision-making” over the flawed Newsnight programme, on top of the fundamental journalistic errors it contained. His shake-up of the news operation is designed to address that problem.

“This is about establishing clear lines of responsibility in our journalism and delivering output we trust, and I think I’m in a good position to do that,” Davie said.

The BBC has rebounded from serious errors in the past, including a damaging scandal over its erroneous reports of a “sexed up” government dossier that helped pave the way for Britain to join the US-led invasion of Iraq. The furore over that incident also caused the then-director general Greg Dyke to resign, in 2004.

The Newsnight errors were “accidents waiting to happen, given the structure of the BBC”, said Lis Howell, director of broadcasting at City University London. “It’s a bloated management structure and there are too many generals. This is just another example of confusion there.”

But Barnett is more confident that the BBC will recover its position as the news source most Britons trust.

“In the short term there certainly will be a dent” in public confidence as a result of the crisis, he said. “But after a period of three to six months, trust returns. The BBC’s institutional values are resilient and very, very durable.”

That includes a propensity for self-examination that borders on self-flagellation. Since the two Newsnight debacles started making headlines, some of the most aggressive on-air grilling of BBC executives has come from the journalists who work for them.

What reforms lie ahead for the BBC are unclear. The BBC Trust, led by Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, Chris Patten, is eager to appoint a new director general as quickly as possible, but major changes to how the corporation is run could require modifying its royal charter.

Maria Miller, the government minister for the media and the arts, said that the broadcaster ought to have some time to put its house in order.

“At this point, we need to make sure we have a period of stability for the BBC so that they can look at the reviews that they’ve already undertaken and those that are still proceeding, and that we can actually create the sort of change which will strengthen the organisation for the long term,” Miller told the British parliament.

Meanwhile, a judge-led report into the phone-hacking scandal, which exploded with the discovery that employees of Murdoch’s News of the World hacked into a kidnapped girl’s mobile phone, is due this month.

The scandal widened when scores of celebrities, sports stars and politicians said they, too, had been hacked. The tabloid folded, Murdoch’s media paid out millions in compensation and still faces scores of lawsuits.

Murdoch’s grudge against the BBC was vented in detail in a 2009 speech by his son James, a television executive who railed against the BBC’s funding, which comes from a TV licence fee.

Because of its funding “the BBC feels empowered” and “the scope of its activities and ambitions is chilling”, said James Murdoch.

Some expect the report on media regulation by Lord Justice Leveson, based on months of jarring testimony about wrongdoing by Murdoch’s reporters and others, will prompt the government to impose statutory regulation on the British print press, which is now overseen by an industry watchdog.

The BBC’s problems could make such a harsh step more popular.

Additional reporting by Associated Press, Bloomberg