I have just returned from two hours of broadcasting on the BBC World Service. It is an odd time to be inside the BBC, not least because reporters from the organisation itself, as well as its rivals, are standing outside the studio doing pieces to camera about what is going on inside. Anyhow – having dealt with some web and print-press troubles in my last post, I wanted to jot down a few thoughts on the BBC’s troubles.
1) The first is that the Newsnight McAlpine story is devastating. How any news organisation, let alone the publicly-funded (and compared to its commercial rivals extremely well-funded) BBC could have run such an amateurishly flawed piece of investigative journalism is appalling. Among other things the internal investigation must turn up how Newsnight managed to turn a crisis over not running one story which appears to have foundations, into running another story on a similar issue which fell apart within hours. Did anyone in the BBC think the McAlpine story was a fast-track exoneration for the mistakes over Savile? If so, who?
2) In all of this a real story is being missed. Just as the Today Programme / David Kelly affair ended up being about an internal media issue, so this Savile / Newsnight business looks set to continue being about media malfeasance rather than the more important issue of overlooked child abuse.
3) The media storm. As Rod mentioned a few weeks back, all media stories about the media reach a point where they disappear up their own fundament. The nadir in this case probably came the other week when BBC reporters door-stepped other BBC reporters on their way into work at, er, the BBC. I think BBC reporters reporting on the BBC from outside their own offices in the BBC runs that a close second.
4) The BBC’s strength. For all the opprobrium that will rightly be thrown at Newsnight’s investigative team, people should at least acknowledge that the BBC is unique in the media landscape in being good at self-criticism. It was John Humphreys’ painful questioning of the BBC Director General on the BBC’s Today Programme that ensured the BBC Director General, George Entwhistle, had to resign. It is worth recalling that absolutely no print media would interrogate their owners or bosses in such a way and nor would any of the BBC’s commercial rivals (though, to do them credit, Sky were quite good at covering the last round on Rupert Murdoch)
5) What to do about Chris Patten? I find this tricky. Having appointed the shortest-termed Director General ever, and put his full confidence in him, the Chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, probably cannot remain in place. But I am torn on this. Not because I think he is good at this job, but because I cannot stand Chris Patten. It is not just that his politics are so appalling, but that he is exactly the sort of person – demonstrably wrong on nearly everything that matters, yet constantly failing upwards – who has helped to make this country such an increasingly second-rate power. Personal dislike of someone else’s opinions should probably be separated from any judgment over that person’s job prospects. But all I would say is that if it was anyone else I would say they had no option but to resign or be fired.
6) One final thought. Various MPs have leapt on this with undisguised glee, as they have with the print media’s going-over at Leveson. All I would observe is that there is a risk in Britain of putting together a circular firing-squad. No bad thing, perhaps, in some peoples’ opinion. But I would simply rather see the institutions that we have work better, rather than see each take the other out in succession and then leave a vacuum. The print press shot Parliament three years ago. Since then certain MPs have tried to shoot the print press. Quite a lot of the print press as well as a lot of MPs are now hoping to shoot the BBC. Whatever emerges from this could easily be worse than what we currently have. If we are so intent on this firing formation, could we not at least put Lord Patten and all the other people who have screwed up this country into the middle of that circle and focus all of our attention on them?