Jimmy Savile “change of story”: dangerous days for the BBC
- Category: Broadcasting
In a news provider like the BBC, where story lines are constantly being changed and updated, journalists and editors have to trust each other. There is what amounts to an umbilical cord of trust between a reporter out on assignment and those executives who have editorial control over what is broadcast in news bulletins and programmes.
Sometimes that sense of trust gets eroded; perhaps the journalist senses that the editor no longer approves of the story line which is being pursued.
If there is a serious misunderstanding the umbilical cord might be broken altogether. Very occasionally – as I know from thirty years as a BBC correspondent – that breakdown in relations might have been due to what I can only describe as a hidden agenda on the part of the BBC’s management.
When it comes to the dropping of Newsnight’s investigation into the allegations of child abuse against the late disc jockey Sir Jimmy Saville, the suspicion is that the story was dropped for corporate reasons: the BBC did not want to jeopardise its pre-Christmas tribute programmes to such a well-known celebrity.
It is the manoeuvring within the BBC’s editorial chain of command – which was going on without the knowledge of Newsnight’s reporter Liz MacKean and producer Merion Jones – which makes the Savile saga so dangerous for the BBC.
Usually the BBC’s managers and editors manage to present a united front when defending the Corporation’s output but on this occasion there has been no consistency in their statements leaving Newsnight’s reporting staff with little alternative but to expose their unhappiness at the apparent failings of the programme’s editor Peter Rippon.
For once an editorial crisis within the BBC cannot be blamed on the government of the day – this crisis has been entirely of the BBC’s own making and there has been no sign of any political interference.
But while ministers always insist they have no say in shaping the BBC’s editorial policies, there is no doubt that over the years the BBC’s hierarchy goes to great lengths to ensure that it does not needlessly offend the party in power and in the past that has created conflict over the direction of news output.
On several occasions I experienced a withdrawal of editorial support and stories were dropped. I considered the reasons were pretty clear: the BBC’s management feared the story lines might jeopardise political relations.
During the decade that Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister the BBC had an uneasy relationship with her government; the BBC’s governors undoubtedly felt under pressure, and in my experience that did have an impact on editorial output.
Stories which caused conflict with my editors included one involving the print unions which were under attack for standing up to Eddie Shah during the Stockport Messenger dispute and then again during the 1984-5 pit dispute when I became convinced the National Coal Board was massaging downwards the number of mineworkers on its books, to hasten the moment when Mrs Thatcher could declare victory after in view of the number of men returning to work.
On each occasion I was called in to explain the basis of my stories and it was an uncomfortable moment.
Again in the early and late 1990s stories dropped – one involved my inquiries into how the Sun was obtaining information from the Police in order to embarrass the then Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock and the second arose soon after Tony Blair became Prime Minister and there were the first allegations that lobbyists had gained inappropriate access to ministers.
My disagreements with editors were nothing like as serious as the rift between Newsnight’s reporter and producer and their editor over his decision to abandon the investigation into Jimmy Saville but they highlighted the balancing act which sometimes faces the BBC’s journalists.
I had to accept – and still recognise – that journalists working for a publicly-funded news organisation like the BBC have to realise that they do have a wider responsibility to their colleagues; they have to understand that BBC’s reputation and independence should not be jeopardised by needless infighting.
Upholding the impartiality and political neutrality of the BBC is no easy task and the Corporation’s journalists, unlike their colleagues on newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Sun, do not have to work to pre-conceived agendas; that editorial freedom has to be safeguarded at all costs, however disappointing it might be to see an editor spike a much-prized story line.
Illustrations: I newspaper, 22.10.2012; London Evening Standard, 22.10.2012