By Kenneth Roy
Famously, it was not the fact that he slept with Christine Keeler which cost John Profumo his career but the fact that he lied about it to the House of Commons. In this way the English establishment converted a sex scandal into a political one. Its outcome was the fall of Harold Macmillan’s government.
It is an odd thought that it was only a few years later, in the same worthless decade, that a then unknown Jimmy Savile began preying on young girls and paying off the police. The Profumo affair is long dead and buried, although Christine herself – the only protagonist in it who went to prison – is still alive. She would have been too old for Savile; she was above the age of consent.
But if Profumo seems wholesome by comparison, there is a certain parallel in the morphing of one crisis into another. This time it is not a government whose integrity is undermined and whose future is threatened, but a once-revered public institution of which its founder wrote: ‘I want to banish ignorance and misery and enrich the human race’.
John Reith was a man with a mission. His mission for the BBC was to bring into every home ‘all that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement’. His successors have ensured that what is brought into every home is a tale of corruption so sordid that, when the BBC finally got around to exposing the evil within its own organisation, it had to do so at an hour late enough to ensure that most children – and many of the rest of us – were asleep.
Jim is indeed fixing it. From beyond the grave this hideous little man is finishing the BBC – destroying what is left of its noble Reithian legacy and robbing it of the public trust which is essential for its survival. It is quite an achievement. But the serial rapist did not manage it all on his own. He depended upon the unwillingness of BBC managers who strongly suspected what was going on to do anything about it. For these culpable individuals, it is much too late for regrets.
A disgraced management faces allegations not only that a paedophile ring operated within the BBC but that Savile and others committed grave crimes on its own premises – crimes which, if vigorously prosecuted as they should have been, would have had the perpetrator or perpetrators locked up for life. Instead Savile was given the keys of Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric institution. English life lacks nothing in irony.
The reputation of the BBC as a serious broadcaster had, however, been slowly collapsing for years before the Savile scandal broke. The BBC is no longer highly rated by most journalists – or, for that matter, most intelligent viewers. The figures for its current affairs flagship – the programme at the heart of one aspect of the scandal – speak eloquently for themselves.
A recent edition of Newsnight (the full UK version before it is abruptly truncated for ‘viewers in Scotland’) was watched by all of 200,000 people. Assuming 10% as the audience share, the number of people watching in Scotland was 20,000. It will not be long before the Scottish Review does rather better.
The BBC’s decline and fall has been accompanied every step of the way by the growth of a byzantine management structure, increasingly remote from the shop floor and mainly notable for its arrogance and ruthlessness. We are seeing by example in the agonies of the present scandal how the regime operates.
One example. Peter Rippon, the editor of Newsnight, is ‘stepping aside’ – what a terribly quaint phrase; did they borrow it from their grisly Saturday night dance show? – pending an ‘independent’ inquiry into the axeing of Liz MacKean’s exposé a year ago. The BBC resorted yesterday to a public repudiation of Mr Rippon, correcting his alleged errors and coming close to calling the man a liar, but could not bring itself to dignify him with a name.
I said in this space last Thursday that the BBC was extemporising its way through the crisis, and doing it badly. Nothing has changed, except that it is now throwing the odd fall guy overboard. It may have a crime series called ‘New Tricks’, but the BBC’s are always the oldest in the book. Mr Rippon is today’s sacrifice; we won’t have to stick around long for the next.
I write in advance of the appearance before a House of Commons select committee of the wondrously named George Entwistle, who was known as ‘head of vision’ before his unfortunate elevation to director-general. Vision is what Mr Entwistle seems to lack. He has an opportunity today to demonstrate not only vision (and, it goes without saying, utter transparency in his account of recent events) but something which comes hard to the monstrous bureaucracy which he personifies. He needs to exhibit humility in the face of the most shocking inhumanity.
Mr Entwistle must explain – above all else he must explain – why he went ahead last Christmas with programmes eulogising Savile, perpetuating the public myth around him, when he knew perfectly well that Mr Rippon was supervising an investigation into grave allegations of criminality against Savile. If he cannot answer this question satisfactorily, the BBC’s chairman, Chris Patten, must explain why the governors went on to appoint Mr Entwistle to the top job and why he is still in that job.
It is disturbing, though not entirely surprising, that the BBC’s friends in the media – it still retains some in such places as the Guardian and Independent – now see this tragedy primarily in terms of BBC politics. ‘Time to take a deep breath’, the Guardian counsels. Maybe this is not the ‘biggest crisis the BBC has faced in 50 years’ after all. Maybe, speculates that humanitarian organ, the sexed-up dossier or the many Thatcher stand-offs were bigger crises in the BBC’s recent history – and wasn’t there something awkward going on back in 1937? Why, with a convincing performance in front of the committee, George could be off the hook by teatime.
But the sickness at the heart of this wretched institution will not be cured, or even alleviated, by an unexpected outbreak of managerial adroitness assisted by a bromide or two from the Guardian leader page. The dropping of the Newsnight investigation was merely the latest symptom of a long degenerative malady.
How quickly the victims have been overtaken. They are last week’s news. It seems according to the latest police estimates that there may be as many as 200 of them. They have been abused, disbelieved and dismissed. Some columnists are even wondering aloud whether, since Savile’s crimes happened such a long time ago, there is any point in pursuing them.
Anyone who has ever spoken at length to victims of the most dreadful crimes is aware that what the victims long for – more than retribution, more than punishment, more than anything in this world – is the truth. This profound desire for the truth is not diminished with the passage of time. It is intensified. Without it there is no justice. Without it there is no peace.
It is worth pondering the BBC’s likely reaction – or the Guardian’s – had these crimes been committed in the offices of, say, a government department. There would be no talk of the relative nature of the crisis; there would be no question of taking a deep breath. The police would already be crawling all over the shop, and the BBC and the Guardian, and every other media outlet in London, would be demanding to know if people employed by the department had been engaged in a cover-up worthy of referral to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Strangely, there does not appear to be the same sense of urgency about launching a criminal investigation into the BBC.
Well, not yet.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review