BBC thrown into ‘worst crisis for 50 years’

A map on the wall of the BBC World Service building displays its vast global reach © Getty Images

Facing allegations that it dropped an investigation into Jimmy Savile’s secret abuse of young girls, the BBC is losing public trust. How will the broadcaster recover?

The editor of the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight has ‘stepped aside’, as the corporation is engulfed in a crisis described by one senior correspondent as its worst in at least fifty years.

At the centre of the drama is television personality Jimmy Savile, who, until his death last year, was one of the BBC’s most distinctive and popular presenters. In the last month, investigations have exposed Savile as a serial abuser of vulnerable teenagers.

The BBC has faced stern questions ever since the news first broke: how many knew about Savile’s behaviour? Why was nothing done? And was he just the nastiest element in a broad culture of sexual immorality?

There is another issue more challenging to the ethics of the BBC. Last November, months before the revelations broke, Newsnight had planned an in-depth report investigating Savile’s inappropriate relationships with children. Why was this never broadcast?

Newsnight editor Peter Rippon claimed the evidence his reporters had gathered was insubstantial. But now the corporation accepts that these explanations are inaccurate. Allegations are mounting that senior staff tried to prevent news of Savile’s crimes from reaching the public.

The BBC has suffered blows to its reputation before. In 2003, an inquiry into events surrounding the Iraq War was so scathing of the BBC’s reporting that it led to the resignation of the both the Chairman and the Director-General. For critics, such scandals are proof or complacency and corruption.

But the BBC is also one of Britain’s most admired institutions. It operates in 33 languages around the world, reports from regions that other organisations neglect and is widely respected for its balance and integrity.

Even within the current crisis, the BBC has demonstrated an unusual capacity for self-criticism. A Panorama documentary, ruthless in its criticism of the BBC’s response, has fuelled much of the controversy. The channel for this brutal attack? BBC One.

Wicked Auntie?

An organisation as huge as the BBC, say the corporation’s admirers, will always produce the occasional scandal. What matters is how it responds. Already it has announced two inquiries and produced a hard-hitting documentary investigation into itself – how many media companies would have done the same? Despite its sins, they say, the BBC still deserves our trust.

Sure they are taking the case seriously now, respond others – but only after they failed to hush it up. As long as it is assured of taxpayer funding, the BBC will always be an insular and bloated organisation whose first instinct is to protect its own. This is the last straw, they say: it is time to break up the Beeb.

You Decide

  1. Is the whole of the BBC implicated in the crimes committed by Jimmy Savile when he worked for the organisation?
  2. Should taxes be used to fund media organisations?

Activities

  1. The BBC is founded on the principles of ‘objectivity’, ‘impartiality’ and ‘balance’. Write down a list of five other values that you think a good broadcaster should always abide by. Compare and discuss your choices.
  2. Imagine you are a reporter from the BBC. Try to write an article about the recent allegations against your own company that offers a fair and balanced perspective.

Some People Say...

“The BBC is the greatest media organisation in the entire world.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Will this affect BBC programmes likeDoctor Who and Strictly?
Not immediately. But everything produced by the BBC depends on subsidies that the corporation receives from the British government, raised by a ‘licence fee’ from each British television owner. If funding is cut, then programmes will be too.
And will it be cut?
Plenty think it should be. The BBC is often accused of having a ‘liberal bias’, and many question whether public money is really well-spent on journalism and entertainment.
So what is the point of the BBC?
Its first manager, Lord Reith, argued that the BBC was there to ‘educate, inform, entertain’. Its public funding is supposed to free it from the bias and sensationalism that often affects private news organisations.

Word Watch

Newsnight
Presented by the famously confrontational Jeremy Paxman, Newsnight is the most important news analysis programme on BBC television. It airs every weekday evening on BBC Two.
Inaccurate
Rippon claimed that Newsnight had seen no evidence unknown to the police, and no proof of BBC involvement. Both of these claims have now been discredited.
Allegations are mounting
This is not to say that there certainly was a cover up. Former Director-General Greg Dyke has claimed that the BBC’s processes would have made an event like this impossible to conceal even if senior managers had wanted to.
Events surrounding the Iraq War
When Britain went to war with Iraq in 2003, one of the major reasons cited by the government was a dossier containing claims about Iraq’s nuclear capabilities. A BBC journalist claimed that it had been ‘sexed up’, and this led to a long and bitter controversy. The Hutton Inquiry, which investigated the matter, largely exonerated the government while criticising the BBC – though many disagreed.

Subjects

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