BBC's fall from grace
Two more heads rolled yesterday in the BBC as it lurched into another related controversy, this time over a £450,000 pay-off to resigned director general George Entwistle, just 54 days in the top job. But, in a welcome sign that Downing Street does not wish to join a general Murdoch-led witch-hunt against it, prime minister David Cameron’s office insisted that he does not believe the BBC is facing an “existential crisis” and ministers would not be “jumping in” to intervene.
Yet, if not existential, the broadcaster’s authority, built on its outstanding journalism, has been sorely damaged in a way that uncannily resembles the RTÉ Mission to Prey fiasco and its own fall from grace. It too wrongly accused a man, Fr Kevin Reynolds, of child abuse without doing the proper checks, it too latched on to a suspect with a preconceived view of his guilt, and its programme and station managers also failed dismally to exercise proper editorial control. There have been resignations, retirements and redeployments at a lower level and RTÉ was fined €200,000, but director general Noel Curran remains in situ. Of course, the BBC was also compounding a previous lapse in basic editorial standards over Jimmy Savile.
Its treatment of the McAlpine story appears to have passed through many layers of management scrutiny for a number of reasons that need to be addressed in any internal review. There was clearly a sense that having been faulted for suppressing a report on a paedophile scandal in the Savile case, they could not be seen to do it again; or perhaps that there was a particular point to prove about the organisation not having lost its bottle.
The connection between the two lapses was reinforced by the reality that a number of executives on the programme and in the hierarchy had recused themselves from editorial supervision because their involvement in the Savile case was under review. The confused lines of authority certainly contributed to inhibiting others from acting decisively on McAlpine.
Among the lessons for the BBC must inevitably be a reform of the most senior management responsibilities which see its director general double-hatting as chief executive officer and editor-in-chief, an impossible task in an organisation of 23,000 staff.
That the BBC crisis should come at this time is particularly unfortunate . With the Leveson inquiry to report within weeks on the need for regulation of the press, the BBC’s failures simply add fuel to the suggestions of a culture of media irresponsibility and the case for tough statutory controls, even though it is unlikely such controls would have made any difference. The glee with which the Murdoch press has grasped and amplified the corporation’s woes as a distraction from its own is particularly short-sighted and counterproductive.