THE BBC is an organisation under seige, on a number of fronts. A judgment on the corporation’s relationship with Jimmy Savile is still some way off, but there are already signs that it will lift the lid on an unedifying culture in the corporation’s light entertainment and music departments in the 1970s and 1980s.
There are serious issues here about what managers knew at the time about allegations of sexual abuse, and what they may have chosen to turn a blind eye to.
In the meantime, critics of the BBC have plenty to get their teeth into. The Pollard report, published yesterday, paints a picture of chaotic management, a lack of proper lines of responsibility and a vagueness about who, ultimately, had editorial control of the corporation’s prodigious journalistic output.
Nick Pollard, former head of Sky News, was brought in specifically to examine the circumstances around the scrapping of a Newsnight investigation into Savile, amid speculation that the programme was abandoned because the BBC was planning a special tribute show to the late TV presenter. Mr Pollard found no evidence of a conspiracy, but said the BBC was “completely incapable” of dealing with the Savile allegations. He also criticised the judgment of Newsnight editor Peter Rippon, who along with other senior BBC editors will be moving to different jobs in the corporation.
Another report, by the BBC Trust, also published yesterday, reported a “grave breach” of the corporation’s editorial controls in the decision by Newsnight to run a programme that made completely untrue allegations of child sex abuse by a prominent Conservative politician from the Thatcher era, easily identifiable from internet gossip as Lord McAlpine. Again, lines of editorial accountability were a problem.
On top of all this a public accounts committee report today describes as “cavalier” the decision to award a £450,000 pay-off to departing BBC director-general George Entwistle. Meanwhile, here in Scotland, the corporation prepares to cut the jobs of frontline journalists. In short, the Beeb has had better weeks.
Ultimately, the key problem facing the corporation can be summed up in one word – trust. The journalistic credibility of the BBC, given its power and reach in this country, is an essential building block of our democracy (though these events lead to the inevitable questioning of its right to exist funded by the compulsory license fee). In addressing the shambles that is the corporation’s management structures, getting the journalistic lines of accountability right must be a priority. Without renewed credibility on this front, progress is impossible.
But for the man and woman in the street, what will mainly stick in the craw is the accusation that then BBC has been cavalier with licence fee payers’ money. A slimmer and less costly bureaucracy would be an excellent first step in renewing the public’s trust.
Carloway law reforms are a crucial step
WHEN Lord Carloway was asked to examine the consequences for Scottish justice of recent judgements in the European Court of Human Rights, few people expected what came next. His recommendations shook the very foundations of the Scottish criminal justice system, particularly his suggestion that the centuries-old need for corroboration in Scots Law be scrapped.
While welcomed by groups that represent rape victims as a positive move, there was disquiet from other quarters, most notably defence lawyers and advocates. They argued that removing the need for corroboration would eliminate a key protection against an innocent man or woman being convicted of a crime they did not commit.
This was an entirely legitimate objection, and one Lord Carloway had to take on board were his final blueprint for an overhaul of Scottish justice to be credible. Yet, in doing so, he has opened up the possibility of the removal of another foundation stone of Scottish criminal justice – the “not proven” verdict.
Yesterday, Kenny MacAskill, the Cabinet secretary for justice, announced a new phase of the Carloway process that will examine not only the not proven verdict but also the majority required in a Scottish jury before an accused can be convicted. These are sensible precautions. But some work is still necessary to ensure radical changes result in a balanced justice system.
The passing of such totems of our legal history may be seen by some as a cause for regret. But Scots Law does not exist in a vacuum – it has to be compatible with international law, and the Carloway reforms are a crucial step towards that goal.