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BBC in serious crisis

YUSUFF ALI Sunday, November 18 2012

In its 90-year history, the BBC has never, until now, been embroiled in such a crisis. It has had its ups and downs like broadcasting organisations have had all over the world, including TT, but never on such a scale.

And what is it all about? Well, it all started over a sex scandal of enormous proportions, involving a well-known television personality and charity organiser by the name of Jimmy Savile, who died a year ago at the age of 84.

In December last year, less than two months after he died, one of BBC TV’s hard-hitting programmes, Newsnight, shelved a planned broadcast on alleged child abuse by Savile (who was a knight of the realm). This allowed BBC tributes to him to go ahead.

In July this year, it was announced that George Entwistle, BBC’s head of vision, was to be the next director-general of the corporation. Three months later, ahead of an ITV broadcast on Savile, Newsnight editor, Peter Rippon, wrote in a blog that the BBC Savile programme was shelved for editorial reasons and not because of pressure from his bosses.

The next day, ITV broadcast its programme, linking Savile with serious child abuse during his many years of working with children on BBC TV and elsewhere. The BBC launched an inquiry into the management of the Newsnight programme on Savile and another into the culture prevalent at the corporation during the years he was employed there.

Within days, Panorama, another of the BBC’s hard-hitting news programmes, broadcast its own investigation into the scandal, severely criticising the corporation for either allowing or not knowing that Savile was abusing children. Allegations of over 100 cases came to light.

A number of things happened very quickly. Mr Rippon stepped aside from his Newsnight role while the investigation into the programme was being carried out. Mr Entwistle was grilled by MPs on the Culture Select Committee. He revealed that it was he who asked Mr Rippon to step aside due to inaccuracies in his blog.

On November 2, Tweets revealed that Newsnight was about to accuse a senior political figure of involvement with child abuse in North Wales in the 1970s and 80s. In the actual programme, a former resident of one of the homes involved in the scandal said a senior Thatcher-era politician abused him.

Three days later, Prime Minister David Cameron announced a review into how the North Wales scandal was investigated. A new police probe was also announced.

On November 8, on ITV’s This Morning programme, Philip Schofield, normally a level-headed presenter, handed the Prime Minister a list of names of alleged paedophiles. The Prime Minister declined to look at the names and, instead, cautioned against a witch hunt. He said all allegations of abuse should be reported to the police. The next day, former abuse victim, Steve Messham, said he mistakenly identified former Conservative Party treasurer, Lord McAlpine, as his abuser. The BBC apologised unreservedly, but Lord McAlpine said the allegations were seriously defamatory and he would take legal action against those who linked him with child abuse.

On November 10, Mr Entwistle announced his resignation as director-general after only 54 days in the job. On November 12, Helen Boaden, head of news, and her deputy, Stephen Mitchell, stepped aside while the inquiry was being carried out into the Savile programme.

A former soft drink marketing man, Tim Davie, has been appointed acting director-general. He has no journalistic experience but now finds himself running the world’s best-known broadcasting organisation, though he did not make the final rounds of interviews when he applied for the job earlier this year.

The chairman of the BBC, Lord Patten, has warned that the corporation was finished unless it moved quickly to restore trust in its journalism. But his own job is now on the line. Former culture secretary David Mellor has called for his resignation while one of Mr Mellor’s successors said Lord Patten had a few weeks to save his position.

At least six other senior executives may also have to go, as pressure mounts on the corporation. But I would just like to say one more thing. There is still morality in public affairs in the UK, which makes me wonder how many top officials would resign if a similar situation were to ever arise in TT.

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