So the BBC is – in the words of long-serving correspondent John Simpson – facing its worst crisis in 50 years.
The handling of what someone soon is bound to call ‘Savilegate’ certainly isn’t the corporation’s finest hour and ensures the new Director General, George Entwhistle, is having a particularly rocky start to his time in the job. he’s survived today’s two-hour grilling by MPs but I wouldn’t wager too much on his long-term survival. He is, after all, the editor in chief of the BBC and in an honourable organisation like the corporation that’s as far as the buck gets.
I’ll bet, though, that his discomfiture is raising a smile or two on the faces of newspaper journalists who’ve had their own time in the wringer during the Leveson Inquiry and who are still waiting to hear what the noble judge has decided about future regulation of the press. At News International especially there is a sense that the BBC is a smug outfit feather-bedded by the licence fee, so few tears will be shed over its current embarrassment.
The BBC had a relatively easy ride during Leveson – rightly as it wasn’t implicated at all in ‘phone hacking – but now its culture is under intense scrutiny, again rightly so. I remember a former Deputy Director General telling a group of news editors that the Beeb was always adept at shooting itself in the foot but that its aim was creeping higher. How appropriate those words are to the present ‘crisis’.
Greg Dyke, who stood down as DG over the ‘sexed up dossier’ affair could hardly hide his own smile as he spoke at the weekend of how telling BBC journalists to stop something like an investigation would be met with resistance. That, at least, says something for the robustness of journalism in the corporation. So, too, does the fact that some Newsnight staff have been prepared to talk to Panorama about their misgivings over the decision to drop the programme’s investigation into Savile or into Surrey Police’s handling of allegations against him depending on whose versions of events you prefer.
It’s not just the BBC, of course, that seems to have ignored reports and rumours over the years that Savile was a sexual predator. What makes it worse for the Beeb, though, is that the Newsnight investigation was shelved and suspicions over why that happened will linger – not least because the press have got their teeth into Auntie and they’re not about to let go.
Peter Rippon is ‘stepping aside’ from his post as Newsnight editor which is not quite the same as resigning from the post but does indicate some willingness to do the decent thing amid a real mess. No doubt the BBC will watch the media carefully to see the reaction to that move. Given that a poll of readers of Media Guardian shows more than 60% feel Rippon should have resigned it seems he and employers will face trouble for some time yet……and there’s no chance Jim’ll Fix It.