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Sunday 18 November 2012

The BBC has its faults, but there is still much worth celebrating

No other broadcaster would subject itself to such devastating scrutiny.

These last few months have been the worst of times and the best of times for the BBC.

First the worst. There was the horrendous embarrassment of the dreadful, ill-informed coverage of June's Diamond Jubilee Royal Regatta, in which jolly young BBC presenters who didn't know a destroyer from a canoe wittered banalities at enraged viewers who were aching to hear about history, significance and symbolism. So when the following month the chairman of the BBC Trustees, that amiable arch-Establishment figure, 68-year-old Lord Patten, announced that in September George Entwistle who as director of vision had overseen that fiasco would take over as director general, eyebrows were raised.

Now anyone who knew him thought Entwistle a decent bloke, but those who believed the BBC was in need of radical reform of its structure, its risk-averse, bloated management and its smug ethos were dismayed.

Entwistle had hardly moved offices when in early October ITV aired a documentary giving the low-down on Jimmy Savile's disgusting and illegal exploitation of the under-age and the vulnerable sometimes on BBC premises. This was followed by the revelation that the previous December, a few weeks after Savile's death, Peter Rippon, editor of BBC's Newsnight, had pulled a similar investigation, perhaps because it would have upset BBC plans to broadcast three tributes to the posturing old goat.

After two weeks (during which headless-chicken actions included removing Savile from the Desert Island Discs archive), the BBC commissioned an inquiry into why Newsnight had scrapped the programme and another into the culture that prevailed while Savile worked there.

The next day, the BBC's own Panorama (which has a long-standing rivalry with Newsnight) used new interviews and emails that raised embarrassing questions about what Entwistle knew at the time about the decision to drop the Savile programme. There's a BBC joke that "deputy heads will roll", so it was no surprise when Rippon was asked to step aside.

The day after, a badly-briefed Entwistle performed poorly in front of an aggressive select committee of MPs. Asked why as head of vision he had shown no curiosity when told there was a problem about Savile, he explained that at his level it was not a matter for him.

With allegations of abuse by Savile pouring in, the police began making arrests of people who had worked with him in the BBC, including Gary Glitter, Freddie Starr, Dave Lee Travis and a producer.

Last Friday week, Ian Overton, the managing editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (a bumptious outfit based at London's City University), tweeted: "If all goes well we've got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political figure who is a paedophile" and set the internet ablaze.

The only witness was a former resident of a Welsh children's home, Steve Messham, who claimed that in the late Seventies that he'd been repeatedly raped by an unnamed Conservative politician. His evidence was unchecked and unsubstantiated, and though Overton had privately leaked the name of Lord McAlpine, then Conservative Party Treasurer, no one in the BIJ or Newsnight had asked McAlpine for his side of the story. Desperate to retrieve its reputation for courage, Newsnight had succumbed to recklessness.

A week later, with McAlpine threatening to sue the BBC, Messham was shown a photograph of him by the police and said he was not the man in question. The following morning, Entwistle had an excruciating interview on the Today programme with John Humphrys, its resident Rottweiler. In the midst of all his explanations about appropriate levels of management and what had and had not been brought to his attention, he admitted that in the course of a whole day he had neither seen nor been told about a front-page Guardian story that spilled all the beans. He resigned and two more executives stepped aside two days later. He was then given an enormous payoff that has made licence-payers very cross and may yet do for Patten.

And the best of times? The BBC has been held accountable to parliament, the licence-payers and its own journalists. Its public affairs programmes have debated and exposed and criticised the organisation that funds them, and its devastated employees have freely savaged their own managers. A harassed Lord Patten looks nervously over his shoulder and promises root-and-branch reform.

The BBC has plenty of faults, but I can think of no country where the state broadcaster and its senior people would have subjected itself to such open and devastating scrutiny. That is something to be celebrated. So too is that Lord McAlpine has settled modestly with the BBC but is suing irresponsible tweeters. It's time that free market forces rather than heavy-handed police censorship taught even citizen journalists that there is no such thing as a licence to libel.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards