The Man Who Never Was

The last time I embarked on a voyage around the allegations about Jimmy Savile, I used a phrase that went something like, ‘and he continues to poison everything he touched.’ I’m not usually prescient – if I was I would have a job, or possibly a Lottery win or two under my belt – but it seems to me that his presence looms in the background of the present wave of madness afflicting the BBC.

And this is even with the best attempts of…well, everyone to erase him from history. His headstone is already gone, destroyed and dumped in landfill. Charities set up in his name have decided to close down. A footpath in Scarborough formerly known as ‘Savile’s View’ has had its sign removed. His freedom of the borough of Scarborough has been revoked. There is some talk of the Royal Armouries changing the name of the Savile’s Hall Conference Centre in Leeds. And so on and so forth.

I might have been imagining it, but I could swear I saw a news item recently discussing the possibility of actually disinterring Savile. Quite what would happen after that, I’m unable to imagine. A scenario a la Cromwell following the Restoration? The rotting head of the Janglybeast on a spike outside Parliament?

If so, it probably wouldn’t be alone, because heads have been rolling again at the BBC.

I suppose it’s reasonable to describe the BBC’s Newsnight programme as something of a flagship. It goes out quite late in the evening on BBC2, hot on the heels of the Ten O’Clock News on BBC1, but if my own Twitter feed is any guide it gets a fair few viewers and on occasion inflames a fair few emotions.

I talked about Newsight‘s failure to run an investigative piece about Savile in an earlier post, and I think I mentioned the opprobrium which was being heaped on the BBC, and its brand shiny new Director-General, George Entwistle, for that failure. In the wake of the ITV documentary about Savile, women who worked at the BBC in the 1970s and 1980s have come forward to tell us just what a scary place it was for them. A number of investigations are going on, and there’s no easy way to judge how far and wide they will eventually range, but the main focus of the ire from all sides seems, to me at any rate, to have been that failure to run the piece – and then to run a number of laudatory programmes about Savile over Christmas last year.

A little while ago I saw a tweet giving a shout-out for a Newsnight article that evening which would expose a senior Tory as a paedophile. This got retweeted and discussed quite a lot during the day, but as the afternoon wore on into evening I started seeing tweets to the effect that the piece would not be run after all, and if it was it would not name the gentleman in question, and in the end I didn’t bother tuning into the programme that night.

The piece, apparently, contained an allegation by a former care home resident that a Tory – who was unnamed – had raped him while he was in care. The resident was subsequently seen in television reports speaking of terrible events at the home.

Twitter is, of course, a place characterised by a huge curiosity. If there is a rumour going around, everyone wants to know who’s involved, and before long, out of the noise and static, the name of a Tory peer began to emerge and circulate.

In the meantime, we were treated to the genuinely surreal sight of the Prime Minister on ITV’s This Morning – a programme known more for its soft sofas and fluffy content than for hard-hitting investigative journalism – being handed by one of the presenters a list of ‘suspects’ culled from internet chatter and asked what he was going to do about it.

This in itself set off a minor dust devil of a storm, which led to various commentators weighing in against the ‘sloppy televisual journalism’ of the presenter and This Morning itself. Which, if you’re unfamiliar with This Morning, is a little like criticising the Muppets for their participation in the military-industrial complex.

Anyway, in the end the Guardian published a piece which suggested the Tory peer whose name was by now being freely circulated in the wild was the victim of mistaken identity. The Tory peer indicated he would sue for libel, the former care home resident on whose testimony the Newsnight piece had rested issued a statement apologising for the mistaken identity, and shortly afterward senior figures at the BBC began to fall on their swords.

Entwistle – who had only been in the job a few weeks – was eaten alive in an interview for the BBC’s Today programme,  resigned, and is now at the heart of a row over his severance pay. The Head of BBC News and her deputy have ‘stepped aside.’ The managing director of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – the outside agency which produced the Newsnight piece – whose tweet started the firestorm in the first place resigned. I presume more will follow.

I have no idea what procedures went on between Newsnight and the BIJ to fact-check the piece. They seem to have been somewhat wanting. But I think I can guess why Newsnight wanted to run it.

I think Jimmy Savile – or at least the blank, erased space which used to contain Jimmy Savile – is behind this. I think that after being bitch-slapped for not running the original Savile piece, it would have been too much if Newsnight had been seen to have ‘suppressed’ another, similar report.

Suppose the allegations had been true, and a senior Tory figure from the Thatcher era had been involved with a paedophile ring at a children’s home. Suppose Newsnight had decided not to run it and the BIJ took the piece to ITV, who subsequently screened it. I think we can imagine what would have happened next. We can imagine it because we’ve already seen it happen. And so had Newsnight. There may also have been an element of wanting to regain ground, of making good, of making a stab at getting their reputation back. So they ran with it.

To be fair to the BBC, they didn’t name the Tory peer. The Internet did that. Quite how that pans out in court, we’ll have to wait and see.

What we do have is an organisation under ferocious attack – from the Press at any rate. Nick Robinson, the BBC’s Political Editor, made a very good point when he said that neither the Prime Minister nor the Leader of the Opposition has said anything much about the affair at all. Other politicians have been very careful to state their support for the BBC’s independence

This is because Parliament doesn’t run the BBC. MPs vote on renewing the Royal Charter under which the BBC exists, and they vote to set the level of the licence fee which funds the BBC, and they appoint the Chairman of the BBC Trust, which regulates the organisation. But they have no say, Tory, Labour or Liberal, in the editorial stance of the BBC. That’s how it should be, and indeed it’s the only way the BBC – its news arm, most importantly – can continue to exist.

On the other hand, Press and public opinion are powerful things, and the BBC, after these most recent scandals and some in the not-so-distant past, finds itself having to flagellate itself and prostrate itself and react to a media which in many ways resents it for what it represents and how it comports itself. And every time that happens it chips away a little more at what makes the BBC unique. These mass resignations, the mad shouting about severance payoffs, all do the BBC considerable damage as a trusted broadcaster. It’s already struggling to reinvent itself in the wake of earlier scandals, and every time it tries it seems to me to become less valuable. Are we going to wind up, one day, with a BBC which pisses down its leg every time the Mail publishes a mildly critical op-ed about it?

Because that wouldn’t be a BBC worth having.


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