By Peter Sterry
Ivory towers have never been built so high, and the public kept so removed, as it has with the BBC.
Explaining things to the public is, theoretically, one of the BBC’s principal tasks, but its principle executives have found it impossible to do so when it comes to issue of institutional paedophilia.
While the focus of media attention has rightly moved to the widening investigations into child abuse in government and public institutions, and away from Sir Jimmy Savile, the national broadcaster still remains at the forefront of the issue.
Few are in any doubt that their handling of the subject has been an abject failure, and still refuses to grasp the enormity of the issues.
Even former Director General Greg Dyke called the BBC’s handling of the past four weeks as “pretty disastrous”. Dyke adds, “They let the speculation go on for too long. And then, of course, more and more came out, so it got harder to deal with. The idea that they didn’t show Newsnight’s investigation because of [he affects a sneering tone] ‘editorial reasons’ is very weak. Explain your reasons to the public. That’s important.”
At the time of theNewsnightinvestigation into Sir Jimmy Savile’s activities, the man in the top job at the Beeb was Mark Thompson, now CEO of The New York Times. In common with many of his erstwhile senior BBC colleagues and even his successor in the top job, George Entwistle, Thompson has struggled to get his own story straight.
What Thompson Knew
In the BBC’s grand structure, the director general is both the CEO and editor-in-chief, so editorially controversial matters eventually find their way to him (yes, up to now it has always been a ‘him’). Firstly, Thompson said he knew nothing at all about Newsnight’sSavile story. Then he admitted he might have been generally aware of it, and that it involved allegations of child abuse. Then he agreed that he’d been told of it specifically by a BBC journalist at a drinks party and had subsequently asked senior news managers about it. By then, he says, they told him the investigation had been called off for ‘editorial reasons’. This is not over yet – since the full story of what actually happened and who knew what – has yet to be told, but already the reader’s editor is wondering out loud whether Thompson is fit for any such job. Not only has he changed his story three times already, but is openly intent on avoiding responsibility and passing this most unwelcome buck as quickly and as far as possible. Were he still at the BBC helm, he would surely be under enormous pressure to resign.
Was Entwistle promoted to the BBC’s top job as a result of his own aiding and abetting in the Savile Newsnight cover-up as Director of Programming, while Thompson is swiftly moved safely off shore? We are constantly told that corrupt executives are often promoted to their own level of incompetence, but could this be an actual case of top dogs being promoted for loyally playing a role in a cover-up?
The crisis is not confined to Mark Thompson’s career as a highly paid media executive. The BBC initially maintained in advance of the ITV documentary – and knowing the thrust of its allegations about Savile’s activities – that it had searched its archives and found no evidence of complaints about Savile and therefore that there was no case for further action. However, once the scale of alleged abuse started to become clear, that line simply couldn’t hold, and the BBC said it would hold its own Savile enquiry as soon as police enquiries were complete.
As for the Newsnight decision, the BBC said there was simply no case for questioning the editor’s original decision to drop the investigation. That line didn’t hold either and within two weeks the BBC had been forced to announce two major internal inquiries – into Savile, and the Newsnight decision – and a third into sexual harassment more generally at the corporation. We’re getting the picture that there could be an institutional disease at the Beeb.
The Casting Couch
Though I never worked at the BBC, I was at the other side of television, at ITV, in younger days where sexual harassment was a standing dish and the casting couch was very much in operation. Unfortunately for me, the casting couch of a gay nature, and it was made quite clear to me and colleagues, that rapid advancement up one greasy pole was entirely dependent on embracing another. I would be very surprised if it was any different at the BBC (many staff including senior management flit between the two), where promotion has always been based on who you know – in the biblical sense. Former child actor Ben Fellows went a long way to detail the depths to which older BBC employee regularly sink in order to secure sexual relationships with younger employees or actors. Savile was merely the very filthy end of that particular professional pole.
For the time being, it looks as though by announcing these inquiries, the BBC has skillfully kicked this and all other issues into the high weeds, to be retrieved at any unspecified time in the future. When these inquiries finally report, senior managers will have calculated that the furore will have died down considerably and there will be much wringing of hands and perhaps a sacrificial lamb, most likely an ex-BBC employee, or even better, one which isalready deceased.
The BBC, the Vatican and the Mafia
Such is the self-regarding nature of the BBC, which reminds one of the Vatican announcing its own ‘internal inquiry’ into protecting its child abusing priests. Come to think of it, there are numerous parallels between the BBC and the Vatican – both are rich, haughty, sanctimonious monoliths, presided over by self-elected elites, and both are institutional protectors of child abuse masquerading as venerable bastions of decency. In fact, both these institutions celebrated and honoured Sir Jimmy Savile. It seems that the myths of their own infallibility have blinded them to their own failings and the reality of the world they live in. But though the Vatican does like to enrich itself at the expense of the congregation, the BBC’s business model is much closer to that of that other infamous Italian racket, the mafia.
Above all, the Savile affair has reminded us once again that like the mafia, the BBC serves itself above all others. As it goes, the British public are still mostly unaware that the BBC had flogged its TV license collection business to a private company called Capita Ltd.
Like the mafia, the BBC see the general public as a resource to be extorted, they are there to pay for whatever the BBC decides itwants. Currently, the BBC’s level of public accountability is represented by us writing to ‘Feedback on Radio 4’, or their illustrious Board of Governors. If we are lucky, someone may deign to tell us why we are wrong. Just like mafia, non-payers are dealt with severely, Godfathers and Director Generals alike send heavies round to the front door of anyone daring to challenge their racket to threaten them that if they don’t pay now, they will have to pay a great deal more very soon. The BBC sold off their TV License business years ago, but kept it a rather hush hush affair, for fear that the public would eventually realize that the man coming to your door, insisting to come into your home to look around, and then threatening you with a fine or imprisonment if you cannot pay him a £160 license fee. British citizens should note here that when a private limited company comes to your door and demands money, that’s solicitation, which is technically illegal.
The flagrant disregard for Savile’s activities shown by the BBC is the same sheer arrogance that allows the corporation to extort its so called “licence fee” regardless of one’s income or our desire to consume a relatively mediocre product (with an exception of their nature and gardening programmes, still top notch).
Where the Mafia offer violence, the BBC threaten jail. Both have the solemn code of Omerta, silence in the face of accusation or criticism.
It is the very same arrogance that pulled the Newsnight story about their protected asset Savile, in favour of broadcasting more gushing, hagiographic tributes to Britain’s most prolific paedophile and a serial rapist.
It is the same arrogance that in spite of being a so called public broadcaster, means it is a closed shop, with no public access to its airwaves and all programming handed down from on high. Given its topicality, a real public service broadcaster should have enough backbone to screen a piece like “Sun, Sea and Satan”, British filmmaker Bill Maloney’s gruesome investigation into the appalling goings on at one of Savile’s favourite haunts, the notorious Haut La Garenne children’s home in Jersey, but not the BBC. There is not a cat in hell’s chance anything remotely controversial will ever appear on its screens, or anything that isn’t produced by one of its own perfectly groomed team.
It is the same arrogance, in this case with its extorted loot, that means Beeb thinks its perfectly okay to stuff great chunks of that same loot into the pockets of its cosy club of senior management, and often rude presenters and retired soccer players.
The soccer pundits are a case in point. The lumpen salaries paid to football players still playing the game are justified by their unique skill on the pitch and the role they play securing the club honours and are paid largely by the huge television fees generated by the game worldwide. But once they have left the field of play, these men are no more skilled than the next man in the queue for a mug of Bovril and a meat pie. So why exactly is Alan Hansen paid £20K a week to say “shocking defending” and “unbelievable” every Saturday night? Why should impoverished pensioners, or any of us for that matter, be forced by law to make involuntary contributions to the BBC and Capita Ltd, in order to pad his and other millionaires’ pension funds ? There are hundreds of former soccer players, and I have no doubt I could find many who would give equally incisive and probably far whittier commentaries than the ex-Liverpool centre half at a tiny fraction of the cost, but the BBC likes to keep the self-inflated balloon of its own hyperbole afloat at all costs, particularly where jaw dropping salaries are concerned.
The BBC maintains a view of itself and its “stars” entirely divorced from reality, and nothing must be allowed to puncture this mythos, lest some of the hot air that keeps it afloat should seep out. The Savile affair has punctured their zeppelin sized balloon of hubris from which the good ship BBC is suspended, and now its heading back to earth.