If you work for the BBC, you dislike seeing the outfit’s name in the headlines. It usually means the BBC is in trouble. No good complaining that much of the British press (to the bewilderment of people outside the country) have it in for the BBC, big time. Nor is it any good pointing out that there are a few politicians with an intense longing to dismantle the BBC altogether. These are facts of corporation life, and always have been.
Its top executives have to ensure it doesn’t provide its existential critics, tiny in number but always noisy and weirdly angry, with ammunition. This time the BBC has handed them a veritable ammunition dump. Having worked for the organisation for 46 years, and watched a number of crises at close range, I’m certain we haven’t endured a storm as bad as this during that time.
Harold Wilson forced out Sir Hugh Greene on the grounds that his programmes were undermining British society. Margaret Thatcher came close to accusing the BBC of treason over the Falklands and the IRA, but was canny enough to go no further. Norman Tebbit claimed it had lied about the American bombing of Libya in 1986, and came badly short. Alastair Campbell went berserk at 6.07 one morning as he listened to the Today programme, and forced Tony Blair to set up a judicial inquiry. It did huge damage to their reputations, and to that of Lord Hutton, who carried it out. In every case, public opinion rallied solidly around the BBC.
This crisis is different. No government is attacking the BBC; the problem is our own behaviour, past and present, and paedophilia, of all the crimes in modern society, regarded as the evil of evils. For the BBC to have employed one of the worst sleazebags of modern times and not protected children from him is, with hindsight, disgraceful.
But George Entwistle, the director-general who took over in September to great plaudits, never had the slightest responsibility for Jimmy Savile; he probably never met him. The same goes for Helen Boaden, the best and most forthright head of news and current affairs I have observed. The same with Peter Rippon, hitherto a remarkably successful editor of Newsnight, who has now been forced to stand aside for dumping Newsnight’s exposé of Savile. All now seem to be in the firing-line.
I did meet Savile in my early years as a sub-editor, taking him the occasional bulletin to broadcast. Even then I thought he was creepy and unpleasant. In fact I never met anyone in the BBC who didn’t; and I imagine they, like me, speculated privately about his sexual orientation. Well, now we know. Should the BBC have sacked one of its most popular stars on mere suspicion? Without a precise accusation, it would have been impossible. Being creepy is not a sackable offence.
Has the BBC tried to hush it up? As far as I can tell, its worst crime has been to wish the whole affair would go away. But that isn’t an adequate strategy when the public is appalled about a man who only a year ago it regarded as a saint.
So what should the BBC do? For a start, it’s got to be entirely honest, whatever the consequences. On the outbreak of war in 1939 Boaden’s predecessor as head of news, R.T. Clarke, told his staff, ‘The only way to strengthen the morale of the people whose morale is worth strengthening is to tell them the truth, even if the truth is horrible.’
Now the horrible truths are about ourselves. Monday’s Panorama, double its usual length, was a good start: rigorously independent, meticulous, a programme to be proud of. Imagine a British newspaper investigating, say, its own phone-hacking habits!
Of course, the BBC made a fearful mistake in not broadcasting the Savile exposé at the end of last year. There has been muddle, delay, awkwardness, miscalculation. But is it worse than that? Or is it simply that, since the ghastly Savile himself is beyond human justice, the lynch-mob mentality demands that someone else must pay? Broadcasting a hagiography to Savile last December, instead of Newsnight’s exposé, bears no comparison with what Savile did to kids in BBC dressing-rooms.
Eight years ago, in a panic reaction to the Hutton inquiry’s findings, Greg Dyke was forced to resign as director-general. It was a huge mistake. I speak for a lot of people within the BBC, and probably outside it too, who feel this mustn’t happen again. We should find out what really happened in an atmosphere of calm and reflection, not thrash around looking for a scapegoat to punish for Savile’s crimes. And above all, the BBC’s top figures mustn’t be stampeded into hasty resignation.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 27 October 2012