Savile and the BBC

Thu, Oct 25, 2012, 01:00

THE REVELATION that the late Jimmy Savile was a serial child predator and sexual abuser has not only destroyed his reputation, implicated, the BBC says, nine other current or former staff members or contributors and forced the closure of his charities, but has also raised serious questions about the BBC itself.

How large hierarchical institutions have dealt with the emergence of child abusers among their employees, and the extent to which they tend to be more preoccupied with their reputation or their own agenda than with victims, is a story we are now rather familiar with. Indeed, the BBC’s initial denials and subsequent scrambled attempts to investigate the scale of Savile’s abuse and the culture that turned a blind eye to it have remarkable echoes of the Catholic Church’s conduct here.

Much of the media and political attention in Britain has focused on whether the broadcaster pulled its Newsnight investigation to save the blushes of the corporation – case not yet proven – and specifically on which executives played a part. The editor of Newsnight, Peter Rippon, has stepped aside following publication of an email from a BBC reporter on the programme, Liz Mackean. It claimed that in shelving it he had played down the claims by saying of the victims “the girls were teenagers, not too young”, and that “they werent the worst kind of sexual offences.”

Yet, just as important is a question that is not being asked about the BBC’s more senior editorial and human resources management. The Savile affair is being framed in terms of a “story” – to broadcast or not to broadcast – and management “reluctance to interfere with Newsnight’s autonomy” by asking too many questions is being accepted as a legitimate defence.

Yet Savile is not just a “story”. His conduct represented a profound breach of a corporate duty of care to the young people who came to its studios, and his actions implicated the BBC itself. The latter’s failure over many years to investigate rumours of misconduct is no less damning of it than the evidence that bishops sat on their hands was of the Catholic church. And why, however belatedly, did BBC managers when told of the Newsnight programme not immediately initiate inquiries of their own? Someone else’s job, as Cardinal Seán Brady might have said? Not so. It’s called managing, and has nothing to do with the BBC’s journalistic independence.

Authority lost is hard to regain. The corporation now faces one of the most profound challenges in its history.

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