Meltdown at BBC in ‘perfect storm’ of crises
In the wake of the Jimmy Savile child abuse scandal, the BBC has caused controversy again – this time by accusing a politician of rape. Could this be the end of the Beeb?
For over 90 years, the BBC has been a touchstone of quality broadcasting in the UK and worldwide. Regarded with respect and affection, it is founded on a clear mission: ‘to enrich people's lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain.’
Today, however, the BBC is mired in scandal. The quality of its journalism is in doubt, its role is being scrutinised and its management harshly criticised. On Saturday, its Director-General, George Entwistle, resigned after just 54 days in the job.
What is happening to the once-admired institution? The trouble started when it emerged that Jimmy Savile, a now-dead BBC presenter, had sexually abused hundreds of children. The BBC’s handling of the scandal looked like a cover-up: staff not only turned a blind eye to Savile’s crimes, but when Newsnight journalists uncovered the scandal, bosses chose not to broadcast the damning evidence.
Then, as it defended itself for not showing an investigation, Newsnight broadcast a documentary that meant bigger trouble. Last week, a report into abuse in care homes implicated a 1980s Tory politician in the rape of a young boy – an accusation that turned out to be based on mistaken identity.
The BBC was slammed for shoddy and libellous journalism, and fell deeper into disrepute. ‘Unreserved’ apologies, Entwistle’s resignation and an internal investigation have not saved its reputation: a recent survey said just 42% of people trusted the BBC, down from 62% three years earlier.
This is not the first time the BBC has courted controversy. When Margaret Thatcher was in power, it was often accused of ‘leftwing bias’; later, a BBC journalist angered Tony Blair’s government with accusations that it misrepresented facts to justify going to war with Iraq.
After each of these crises, the Beeb has bounced back. But will it this time? As attacks over the broadcaster’s standards and integrity intensify, important people are demanding a total rehaul of the BBC’s management. Some are even calling for the broadcaster to be done away with altogether.
Backing the Beeb
Quite right, some say. To get respect and influence, not to mention public funding, organisations must prove they are worthy. The BBC has only showcased shoddy journalism and a sordid culture, critics argue: it has enjoyed a privileged position for too long.
Not too fast, others reply. This crisis matters so much because the values of the BBC are held in such high regard: it does not demonstrate the broadcaster’s failure, but its integrity and responsibility. The BBC’s mission and public status is immensely valuable: this month’s scandal should be an opportunity to consider that purpose, and work towards it with new vigour.
- Is it important to have a publicly-funded media, with clear aims and values?
- Should George Entwistle have resigned in the wake of theNewsnightscandal?
- Imagine you are George Entwistle: write a speech announcing your resignation and the reasons behind it.
- Stage an ‘emergency meeting’ that might be held among the senior managers of the BBC in response to this month’s scandal. Discuss what might have gone wrong in the organisation, and how it might be able to fix its flaws.
Some People Say...
“The BBC has lost its way.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- How does this affect me?
- If you live in the UK, it’s likely that the BBC is a part of your life already. The broadcaster airs some of the nation’s most popular TV shows, fromNewsnight and Question Time to Strictly Come Dancing. It runs radio channels devoted to sport, current affairs and a wide variety of music, and its World Service is a leading global media source.
- Who pays for it?
- Every household that owns a TV has to pay a licence fee of £145 every year. That provides a financial foundation for the BBC, and allows it to run without adverts.
- What if I don’t want to pay?
- If you want to watch telly, you’ve no choice. Even if you don’t watch the BBC, many argue, it’s good for society to have a civic-minded and value-based broadcaster.
- George Entwistle
- Entwistle became Director-General, the top management and policy role in the BBC, in September: after being criticised for his handling of the Jimmy Savile and Newsnight scandals, he resigned on Saturday. Mark Thompson, who was Director-General before Entwistle, is due to become CEO of the New York Times next week: some pundits, however, have speculated that the scandal at the BBC may threaten that appointment.
- Jimmy Savile
- A popular TV personality during the 1970s and 1980s, Savile presented Jim’ll Fix It and Top of the Pops on the BBC, and was well known for raising millions of pounds for charity. Since his death last year, hundreds of accusations of sexual abuse of children and teenagers were directed at Savile; he is now thought to be among the most prolific sex offenders in British history.
- Margaret Thatcher
- Thatcher was Prime Minister of the UK between 1979 and 1990. Her Conservative policies – including free markets, the break-up of trade unions and the privatisation of industry – made her as popular on Britain’s political right as she was intensely loathed by the left. The BBC was fiercely critical of the Falklands War and the government’s treatment of the miners’ strike, both flagship policy decisions of Margaret Thatcher.
- Misrepresenting the facts
- When the UK invaded Iraq in 2003, one of the main justifications was a dossier that claimed, among other things, that the country’s leader had access to weapons of mass destruction, some of which could be put into action in the space of just 45 minutes. A BBC correspondent, Andrew Gilligan, took issue with these claims, and reported that an unnamed source has told him the dossier had been ‘sexed up’. The government, and in particular communications head Alastair Campbell, reacted angrily and demanded an apology: the BBC refused, and stood by their reporter’s story.