Savile scandal: BBC under pressure to restore trust

he bungling of reports that powerful Britons sexually abused children has thrown one of the largest and most respected broadcasters in the world into a deep crisis.

hidden November 12, 2012 13:38:30 IST
Savile scandal: BBC under pressure to restore trust

London: The bungling of reports that powerful Britons sexually abused children has thrown one of the largest and most respected broadcasters in the world into a deep crisis.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the BBC in British society; its influence stretches throughout the former British empire and beyond. Over the years, the BBC has been behind almost all of the UK's broadcast milestones, serving as a voice for the British nation. Its airwaves have carried the clanging of Big Ben's bells, wartime messages from Winston Churchill, and the music of the Beatles — exporting British culture to a global audience.

Savile scandal BBC under pressure to restore trust

Jimmy Savile. AP

The head of the BBC's governing body called Sunday for an overhaul of the broadcaster. That could mean many things for the sprawling organisation that has long emphasised its obligations to the public. To know what it would take, it is important to know what the BBC is and the scale of the crisis it faces.

What happened

Last month, the BBC drew fire after it emerged its Newsnight programme had shelved an investigation into child sexual abuse allegations against Jimmy Savile, the broadcaster's renowned TV host who died last year.

Police say that since their investigation started they have received complaints from some 300 victims of Savile and associates — and that some of the abuse may have occurred on BBC premises. Questions soon arose over whether shelving the Newsnight piece was part of a cover-up or if BBC managers had heard of but ignored claims of abuse by Savile while he was hosting such shows as Top of the Pops.

Amid public outrage, BBC director general George Entwistle announced internal inquiries into why the Newsnight investigation was canned as well as the BBC's "culture and practices" during the years Savile worked there.

But then, Newsnight wrongly implicated a British politician in a sex-abuse claims programme that aired on 2 November.

The BBC didn't name the alleged abuser, but online rumors focused on Alistair McAlpine, a Conservative Party member. On Friday, McAlpine issued a fierce denial, and shortly after, the abuse victim interviewed by Newsnight admitted he had mistakenly identified his abuser.

The BBC apologised for airing the programme, which Entwistle said he had not been made aware of. That stance drew incredulity from politicians and media watchers wondering if he was out of touch or inept. The criticism reached fever pitch, and Entwistle decided to resign Saturday. A day later, Chris Patten, the head of the BBC's governing body, called for a "thorough, radical structural overhaul" of the broadcaster.

Past challenges that the BBC faced

The BBC has repeatedly faced off against the government over editorial independence.

Its first major confrontation was during the 1926 general strike, when Churchill unsuccessfully lobbied the prime minister to commandeer the airwaves because the strike limited the modes of communication between the government and the public.

The BBC later came under pressure to support a campaign in the Falklands in 1982, enraging the Margaret Thatcher government by casting doubt on official sources. The BBC's director general at the time insisted it needed to "guard its reputation for telling the truth."

In 2003, a BBC reporter suggested that then-Prime Minister Tony Blair had misled parliament with claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The government called for an apology, but the BBC refused. The BBC's source, weapons expert David Kelly, was named in the media and had to explain himself repeatedly. He later killed himself.

The inquiry into Kelly's death said the reporter had made "unfounded allegations" and called the broadcaster's editorial processes defective. The inquiry's findings led to the resignations of the BBC's chairman Gavyn Davies and its director-general, Greg Dyke — and the installation of Thompson as successor.

What's next?

The broadcaster's charter sets out that "trust is at the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest." But public trust in the BBC has been declining for decades, according to polls, and the latest scandals are unlikely to help.

Entwistle may have quit, but observers say the BBC Trust, which ensures the broadcaster stays true to its public obligations, deserves scrutiny, too. Patten is expected on Monday to lay out plans for how to deal with the aftermath, and many expect more BBC resignations as the fallout spreads.

Kevin Marsh, a former senior BBC editor, says the broadcaster needs to get better at explaining itself and admitting its errors. Even if it never fully recovers, the BBC can probably "learn to live with" a new reality of weaker public confidence, he added.

Tim Davies, a former PepsiCo executive with a marketing background and no experience as a journalist, has been named acting director general. While BBC insiders might regard Davies with suspicion, "He doesn't have BBC blood flowing through his veins, and quite honestly at the moment that could be an advantage," Marsh said.

AP

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