POOR George Entwistle will pass into BBC history as the Lady Jane Grey of director generals, the shortest reign preceding an ignominious end.
When the executioner’s axe came down on Lady Jane, at least it wasn’t live on the Today programme and wielded by John Humphrys.
The BBC will be a story in its own right this week – again. A successor will be found to sit at the DG’s desk. It is a fair guess that other heads will roll when Ken McQuarrie files his report to whomever on the journalistic debacle of Newsnight’s North Wales child sex abuse broadcast.
Esther Rantzen explained on last Friday’s extraordinary edition of Newsnight that when she was pursuing a similar child sexual abuse story years ago, BBC lawyers “were part of the team”. They were there not to suppress, but to remind her journalists of the imperative of securing evidence that would withstand challenge in court or denial in print.
I only met Michael “Rocky” Ryan once, in the mid-1980s when he was at the height of his powers as a newspaper hoaxer. The meeting left a lasting mark on me, as he explained how in idle moments he would think of a story that the newspaper he had in mind would most like to be true. Ryan would pick up the phone and give them it.
The Yorkshire Ripper was attending local Broadmoor Saturday nights discos. Shergar was alive and well and grazing in the Channel Islands.
There was a long list of stories that had been “too good to check”. And if he felt there was a hesitation at the other end of the phone, Ryan would point out he was quite happy to sell the story to someone else. Urgency usually worked, he said.
At that time I was producer of the BBC Radio 4 weekly review of the newspaper world, Stop Press. It had seemed a fair idea to run an item about hoaxing, but after a couple of hours with Ryan I abandoned the idea on the basis that I couldn’t possibly be sure whether he was adding me to his list of gullible victims.
I am not suggesting that the North Wales child sex abuse story is a hoax. But how much of the connection between the decisions to pull the Newsnight Jimmy Savile investigation before Christmas and to broadcast the North Wales abuse item ten days ago is no more than, in Rocky Ryan terms, the embarrassment of the former leading to the “urgency” that propelled the latter past all flashing stop signs?
Newsnight’s initial cynical response was to claim it had not named the man, Lord McAlpine, but they were reporting that a name was trending on Twitter. Horrific.
I am struck by the manifest dismay among many tweeters that Lord McAlpine may not have been the guilty man after all. They so wanted it to be him. We should all remember in any story allegation is not evidence – and retweeting, even by the ten thousand, is not corroboration.
• John Forsyth is a freelance journalist and former BBC producer.
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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