BBC: Let’s get this in proportion


Michael Portillo was on ITV Daybreak this morning talking about a “disaster” and, even, a “catastrophe” at the BBC.

I think it’s time for us all to lie down in a darkened room for a few hours with some smelling salts.

Newsnight made a mistake. It seems to have occurred because the replacement management structure (pending the Jimmy Savile enquiry) was rather weak. This mistake was in a similar league to the newspapers hounding the entirely innocent Chris Jeffries in Bristol, for which I don’t remember any resignations. Making inferences about the BBC management structure from the Newsnight/North Wales story is not really a valid exercise. The senior person who made the decision appears to have been the head of Radio Five Live (standing in for normal managers who were recused from the process because of the Savile enquiries).

The previous Newsnight mistake was to kill a story about Jimmy Savile. Doing so did not result in a single child being abused. No criminal charges will result because of this editorial decision, which is in sharp contrast to the News of the World hacking debacle.

Now we hear, surprise, surprise, that someone with a long career at the BBC, whose career exploded over this crisis, received a large pay-off. OK, that’s a valid subject for debate. Half of the pay off was contractual. The other half was supposed to be to pay George Entwhistle to co-operate with two enquiries. £225,000 to co-operate with two inquiries seems a bit steep. The BBC Trust’s generosity may spring from the fact that George Entwhistle’s resignation did not follow some egregious misdeed on his part.

But all this is a “catastrophe” in a similar way that it was a “catastrophe” to employ Michael Portillo to present “Great British Railway Journies”. No one has died. No one has committed a crime. Not one single child has been abused by Newsnight or the BBC management.

While all this rather exaggerated BBC bashing is going on, the whole subject of child abuse and the tragedy of the victims is taking a back seat.

* Paul Walter is a Liberal Democrat activist in Newbury and West Berkshire. He is Photo Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Liberal Burblings.

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29 Comments

  • I agree. Why do some people love to kick the BBC? Portillo should know better – well perhaps not, he will never forget when the Beeb broadcast his demise at 3.10am, 2 May 1997. I won’t.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 12th Nov '12 - 9:04am

    Good sense as ever, Paul. And while we’re on the subject, we should remember that James Murdoch, who says he didn’t know of serious and widespread breaches of the law going on under his leadership, is still in a job. We have to remember that those kicking the BBC hardest have their own agenda.

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Nov '12 - 9:10am

    “Now we hear, surprise, surprise, that someone with a long career at the BBC, whose career exploded over this crisis, received a pay-off. OK, it’s a subject for debate but unlikely to change because it was in his contract.”

    Well it appears only half of it may have been in his contract – he was apparently entitled to half a year’s salary. Which makes one wonder whether he really did fall or was pushed.

    Entwistle’s resignation statement includes the following:

    “I have decided that the honourable thing to do is to step down from the post of director-general.”

    I see nothing honourable in walking away with a fat payoff covering a period during which he won’t be working for the BBC. If Entwistle really wanted to do the honourable thing then he should set an example – waive any payment over and above that for the period for which he was actually in the post. For any continuing involvement he may have with ongoing enquiries after leaving the full-time job perhaps he should accept the minimum wage. I am sick and tired of hearing about people – be it in the public or private sector – being paid huge sums of money for failure.

  • Well said.

  • Kirsten de Keyser 12th Nov '12 - 10:29am

    …and meanwhile, no one’s digging into claims of a paedophile ring – Tory or otherwise – which is convenient for whoever were, indeed, the perpetrators of the abuse which did take place. That much we do know.

  • Let’s just pretend that this wasn’t he BBC and was The News of the world who had (basically) named an innocent man as a Paedophile without carrying out the most basic of Journalistic checks. So badly that the Guardian were able to destroy the story in less than 24 hours (and channel 4 had highlighted the errors before the programme had even aired).

    Are you now so forgiving?

    The BBC is getting a kicking because it received over £4bn of public money and couldn’t even be bothered to do the checks that a Student Newspaper would expect. There are people who have other agendas joining in the kicking but there are a lot who want the BBC to get it self sorted out and start producing quality.

    As I said elsewhere the DG had to go because the BBC suffered a catastrophic failure (or absence) of control and there was no sign that the DG was capable or interested in fixing this.

  • Paul Walter 12th Nov '12 - 1:01pm

    Psi

    “Let’s just pretend that this wasn’t he BBC and was The News of the world who had (basically) named an innocent man as…”

    Well apart from the paedophile bit and changing the names of the tabloids involved, the case of Chris Jeffries, which I mentioned above, is in the same league except he was named in a murder case. There were no resignations from the papers who wrongly implicated him.

    The Newsnight error was a very basic and greivous journalistic error. I don’t seek to minimise that. But there is an over-reaction here. This is one out of hundreds of thousands of stories which the BBC covers each year. Jumping from this error, grievous that it was, to wall-to-wall “BBC in crisis” and “BBC needs it’s management structure turned upside down” and “this is a catastrophe” coverage is ridiculous.

    I agree that the DG had to go, by the way.

    Bear in mind, that this particular story was not approved by the normal management chain of Helen Boaden and Stephen Mitchell as they were recused from the process due to the Savile inquiry. The story was approved by the head of Five Live news who was standing in for Savile and related matters. So jumping from this error to making sweeping suggestions about the normal management structure is a bit daft.

    I repeat that there are serious matters here but calling this a “catastrophe” is blowing the thing completely out of proportion.

  • Paul

    “Well apart from the paedophile bit and changing the names of the tabloids involved, the case of Chris Jeffries, which I mentioned above, is in the same league except he was named in a murder case. There were no resignations from the papers who wrongly implicated him.”

    I agree that the Chris Jeffries case was also appauling, there should have been resignations/sackings. However the papers paid out large (though not large enough) payments thus hurting the owners of the papers and the owners who suffered financially chose (bizarly) not to fire the editors. The BBC is funded by the public and when public money is used so inappropriately peopl ehave a right to be very angry.

    I’ll respond to the rest later.

  • Could anyone explain to me why, if the BBC didn’t name the “senior Conservative politician” it should be made to carry the can for later Twitter speculation over which it had zero control and which was simply repetition of pre-existing rumours from way back?

    I really think the BBC should have stood up to this (IMHO politically inspired) onslaught and said outright: “We may have committed errors, but we did not in any way name the man in question, so sue us for defamation in a court of law or shut up”. Even the wronged individual himself is not talking about legal action against the BBC, so I don’t see the need or justification for this witch hunt.

  • “Let’s just pretend that this wasn’t he BBC and was The News of the world who had (basically) named an innocent man as a Paedophile without carrying out the most basic of Journalistic checks. So badly that the Guardian were able to destroy the story in less than 24 hours (and channel 4 had highlighted the errors before the programme had even aired).”

    The BBC made a mistake which they quickly and publicly apologised for as soon as the credibility of the evidence they were presented with was exposed. If the allegations against the tabloids are true then they have undertaken criminal activity on a widespread basis and over a period of a number of years. It took the concerted efforts of many journalists and politicians over a number of years to force the issue; an issue that wasn’t taken seriously by the public at large until the Milly Dowler phone-hacking was exposed. To draw a parallel between the two issues is a gross perversion of reality.

    I agree that the DG should have resigned given the comments made in his interview on Saturday. However, this case is in no way similar in seriousness to the conduct of the tabloids. The disturbing thing is that despite the errors made by the BBC they are still streets ahead, in their reputation for integrity, when compared to almost the entirety of journalism in the UK . They may not be very good, but look at how awful every other news organisation is.

  • Paul finishes off by saying :
    “While all this rather exaggerated BBC bashing is going on, the whole subject of child abuse and the tragedy of the victims is taking a back seat.”
    And I suspect there are a lot of nervous, high profile people hoping that it stays on the back seat, permanently.
    I also suspect that behind the scenes the air is thick with injunctions, and super injunctions, and as such it is always possible that the unmentioned, ‘senior Conservative politician’, might have served such an injunction on the BBC?

  • “The story was approved by the head of Five Live news who was standing in for Savile and related matters. So jumping from this error to making sweeping suggestions about the normal management structure is a bit daft.”

    Your going to name a Paedophile on national television*. That most basic understanding of the law means that you need to surer of your facts than you are about your partners birthday. Not doing so is a monumental failure of standard journalistic practice.

    *Even though Newsnight didn’t name Lord McAlpine they did name a small enough group of identifiable people for a libel action to stick.

  • But the BBC didn’t “basically name” anyone. The person discussed on Newsnight could have been any one of hundreds of people senior in the party during the 1980s.

  • @ Hywel

    “They did name a small enough group of identifiable people for a libel action to stick.”

    How did they do that, exactly?

    If they did, then where is the legal action? That is the acid test of whether someone was actually defamed. Do you think that if he was confident of suing the BBC for defamation successfully he wouldn’t have done so by now?

  • If we want proportion in our view of the state taxpayer-funded broadcaster we need to hold a mirror up to the critical right-wing obsessives like John Redwood, to understand what they really want.

    http://johnredwoodsdiary.com/2012/11/12/that-bbc-statement-in-full/
    In this piece his first, second and third criticisms are that views of his political leaning do not get fair treatment. His points 4-12 argue that insufficient critical scrutiny is given to those he opposes.

    While I support better balanced reporting and he raises a couple of valid questions, his underlying bugbear that the BBC isn’t more like Fox News in the US is entirely demolished by the performance of that organisation while covering the reelection of Obama… even compared to the BBC. I mean, with Chris Patten as the Chairman of the BBC Trust, what does he want? To replace his own party member with Karl Rove?

  • “How did they do that, exactly?”

    It will be libelous if you can show that a statement about a group refers to you directly

    “If they did, then where is the legal action? That is the acid test of whether someone was actually defamed. Do you think that if he was confident of suing the BBC for defamation successfully he wouldn’t have done so by now?”

    Your acid test is a rather strange one given that one reason for libel law reform is the difficulties of ordinary individuals bringing an action. It runs into three

    First, you have a 12 month limitation period for libel actions and the rules on pre-action conduct carry potential penalties if you issue a claim prematurely. Secondly you might decide that it isn’t worth the time an effort (which was my conclusion when libelled by someone a few years back). Thirdly you might decide that the possibility of not recovering all your costs if successful makes it not worth while – particularly if the true facts have been given wide circulation.

  • @Hywel

    “Your acid test is a rather strange one given that one reason for libel law reform is the difficulties of ordinary individuals bringing an action.”

    Your definition of a hugely wealthy, well connected and influential peer as being an “ordinary individual” is rather a strange one. If he thought he could launch a defamation action successfully, he would have done so at the drop of a hat.

  • @ Hywel

    “It will be libelous if you can show that a statement about a group refers to you directly”

    Precisely, so how did the BBC do just that?

  • @ RC

    Some infomation on how Libel law appplies:

    http://www.legalweek.com/legal-week/blog-post/2223959/the-bbc-lord-mcalpine-and-libel-law

    As to whether he would have filed imediately, I assume you have never been involved in a complex case before. You always build your evidence and check your facts. Something the BBC failed spectacularly to do.

  • @ PSi

    We shall see. If there is a successful action for defamation (libel relates to the written word) then I stand corrected, but I still fail to see why the BBC should be held to solely account for something that hinges substantially on the actions of others.

  • RC

    “I still fail to see why the BBC should be held to solely account for something that hinges substantially on the actions of others”

    I don’t think the BBC, if sued, will be alone. High profile Twitter users and the BIJ may get dragged in. You could see all kinds of people getting named. Labour politicians may be delting their blogs and praying that Google Cache clears before the Lawyers get to print it. This has big mess written all over it but at the end of the day the BBC will get the harshest criticism as they recieve over £4bn of public money and they behaved in away that would shame a good student newspaper.

    I hope the BBC will learn and sort themselves out but to make them do that it looks like there will be a lot of pain on the journey.

  • It’s hardly going to take a lot of pain to sort out. A simple error isn’t caused by complex problems. However, the damage caused by unwarranted resignations will cause a lot of pain, which is precisely what all those with a political motivation (the Tories and their friends in the non-objective media) want.

  • @ Psi

    In the mean time, of course, what I will grant you are stupid and crass but hopefully one-off journalistic mistakes are being used to question the value of the BBC as a whole and of course to try to shut down one of the most important news programmes which often provides uncomfortable (for the Conservatives in particular) coverage of matters like the Leveson Inquiry.

    The BBC walked straight into this, but nevertheless what a wonderful opportunity for some revenge, eh?

  • ” If he thought he could launch a defamation action successfully, he would have done so at the drop of a hat.”

    Issuing claims “at the drop of a hat” carries a particular risk. There are certain steps that need to be gone through to comply with the pre-action protocol. Not least the potential 14 days for a potential defendant to respond.
    http://www.justice.gov.uk/courts/procedure-rules/civil/protocol/prot_def. None compliance with a PAP

    “Your definition of a hugely wealthy, well connected and influential peer as being an “ordinary individual” is rather a strange one. If he thought he could launch a defamation action successfully, he would have done so at the drop of a hat.”

    Not really – you made the comment that proceedings were the acid test of a libel without reference to the Claimant’s wealth. You do seem to be employing a “if it wasn’t true they’d sue” approach – which as my personal example shows is a pretty bad test.

    “Precisely, so how did the BBC do just that?”
    On the reports I’ve seen (which may or may not be accurate) they have come perilously close. Putting yourself in the position of relying on that defence is a high risk strategy (particularly given the lack of cover they gave themselves by eg checking out the story in more detail and/or offering a right of reply)

  • @Judith

    Why, if your primary concern is the victims of abuse, do you spend so much time attacking the BBC rather than the alleged perpetrator, Savile, let alone suggesting something positive to help the alleged victims with their psychological injuries?

    Do you expect the BBC and every other employer in the country to remove people from their jobs if their behaviour is nothing more than rumoured to be bad? If I hear a rumour about you can I let your employer know so they can sack you?

    There might have been a few rumours about Savile in his lifetime, but many of them appear to have had no basis other than the fact his behaviour was eccentric. One only has to look at some of the nonsensical rumours (necrophilia, etc) that have appeared in the mainstream press in the last couple of months about Savile to realise how foolish it would be to judge anyone on such a basis. I am in doubt whatsoever that many of the rumours made about Savile during and after his lifetime simply aren’t true. Therewithin lies the problem – separating the false rumours from the testimony of those that came forward to the police with what now appear to be legitimate grounds for investigation.

  • David James Portmore White 13th Nov '12 - 6:00pm

    Hear, hear Paul,

    The BBC remains the finest medium of news, information and investigation in the world.

    Yet there are too many extremist right-wingers who desire the destruction of the BBC.

    Instead, I assert that Aunite Beeb is of huge importance to Britain. We need to involve all our poorer people in news and documentaries – always.

    Good luck forthe next ninety years, dear and essential BBC

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