Crises are nothing new at the BBC, a 90-year-old institution still regarded by many Britons as a “national treasure” even after embarking last year on a painful process to reshape itself by shedding jobs and cutting budgets.
The latest one revolves around why and how the broadcaster shelved what would have been a bombshell investigation alleging that the late Jimmy Savile – a ubiquitous and eccentric presence in its light entertainment schedule during the ’70s and ’80s and a star similar in stature to Johnny Carson – had been a serial sex offender.
But while broader questions about child protection in British society have been raised by the allegations that Savile was a prolific molester who preyed on both women and girls at locations ranging from hospitals to the BBC’s own headquarters, the controversy is also now evolving into a potential catalyst for radical changes to the sacred principles behind how the broadcaster is run.
As the affair evolved Wednesday into a potential clash between the government and the BBC, experts predicted that the news organization’s much-valued ability to act without official interference would come under the spotlight.
“Independence from government is treasured at the BBC,” says Lis Howell, director of broadcasting at the department of journalism in City University, London, who was formerly an experienced journalist and executive at the BBC and other broadcasters. “But both it and also its management structure are going to be looked at because of what cropped up since the Savile saga.”
Claims that the BBC historically turned a blind eye to accusations about Savile’s behavior are at the core of the controversy, but it has been compounded by the revelation that an investigation into him by the BBC’s respected “Newsnight” program was shelved last year, only weeks before the BBC aired a glowing Christmas-time tribute to the entertainer.
George Entwistle, who took over as the BBC’s director general last month but who was the executive in charge of the scheduling that included the Christmas tribute, has denied that the BBC helped cover up any allegations. (Mark Thompson, the BBC’s general director at the time and who is slated to become the CEO of The New York Times Corp. in November, has also denied any role in axing the “Newsnight” investigation.)
Yet following Mr. Entwistle’s shaky appearance before a committee of MPs Tuesday, the pressure is ratcheting up on Entwistle and Lord Patten, the head of the BBC Trust.
Patten launched a defense Tuesday of the BBC’s independence after Entwistle’s performance was criticized, telling the government’s media minister in a letter, “I know that you will not want to give any impression that you are questioning the independence of the BBC.”
His remarks were criticized Wednesday by Roger Gale, a Conservative MP who was a former producer and director of current affairs programs at the BBC, which is funded out of a television license fee paid by the public.
“BBC management, over far too many years, has sought to maintain an imperious disdain for criticism and it has become clear that successive directors general have, while happy to criticize others for not answering difficult questions, either turned a blind eye to criminal activities or have not known what has been going on on their own doorstep, which is also culpable,” stated Mr. Gale in a press release.
Gale suggested that if “Lord Patten is not able to grasp that, then I fear that not only the director general but also the chairman of the BBC Trust are going to have to fall on their swords.”
There is disagreement about whether the Savile controversy has yet to reach the scales of previous controversy at the BBC. Arguably more serious fallout emerged in the past from claims made in 1984 by a BBC investigative program that several Conservative MPs had links to far-right organizations. The BBC was sued by two MPs, one of whom was awarded damages after the BBC withdrew from the case.
There was also the fallout from the 2003 report by a BBC defense correspondent who quoted a government official as stating that the British government had “sexed up” a document concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, against the wishes of the intelligence services. A report by a judge later criticized the correspondent and BBC reporting standards.
But at the very least, a shakeup in the BBC’s management structures appears likely.
“They have this very arcane management structure which says that news editorially has to be separate from other issues like entertainment and topical and factual,” says Ms. Howell.
“It’s very departmental, so you don’t manage across and don’t talk to your opposite number in another department. You go up your own department. It’s like chimneys and that is really going to come under scrutiny now, because it’s very expensive to have all this duplicatory management but also because of what happened with the Savile [Newsnight investigation] last year.”