The BBC seems to totter from crisis to crisis. But the corporation’s veteran reporter John Simpson may be right to call the Jimmy Savile scandal the BBC’s worst crisis for 50 years.
Yes, it could prove worse than 2004, when its chairman and director general resigned after the Hutton report condemned the BBC Today’s account of the government’s justification for the Iraq war. The BBC actually gained support back then as many dismissed the report as a whitewash.
Savile is – potentially – different. But there are two separate threads to the story and it’s important not to confuse them.
First, did BBC executives know about Savile’s abuses and turn a blind eye? This would be appalling (despite those saying the world was very different in the 1970s), but could be seen as a by-gone issue unless today’s BBC executives were involved.
Second, did BBC executives order Newsnight to scrap its story last year because it would embarrass the corporation, which was planning Christmas tribute shows? Did bosses, including the then head of TV George Entwistle, ignore warnings about Newsnight’s evidence against Savile?
In my view, the greatest danger to the BBC’s reputation lies in what happened over the last year, not what it did 40 years ago. We don’t yet know the facts. John Simpson may be right. It’s possible that newly promoted Entwistle could go down in history as the BBC’s shortest lasting director general.
The BBC’s enemies are enjoying its discomfort. The conspiracy theorists are having a field day. But the truth may be mundane. Newsnight is not an investigative programme. Editor Peter Rippon may have got cold feet. Once he took his decision, he’s likely to have been utterly absorbed by a thousand other news stories. (Although he must have looked at the Savile tribute shows and thought back uneasily to the damning testimony of Savile’s victims in the interviews.). A serious misjudgement but understandable.
We’ll know soon if the truth is more damning.
In all the fury, we must remember two truths. The scandal is primarily about Savile and his victims. And for all its faults, the saga has shown the BBC’s strengths as well as its flaws. How many other media organisations would examine their failures in public as forensically as the BBC has this week? Panorama’s report was a triumph, as was the performance of the BBC News. Remember this when you hear politicians bashing the corporation over the coming weeks. The BBC can be infuriating, clumsy, arrogant and complacent at times. But Britain would be a far poorer country without it.