In defence of public media, or, why we need to save the BBC

The BBC had it coming. Not because of systemic problems or “shoddy journalism” inherent in a crumbling institution. But because from the very first day that the current government was in power, the BBC has been under sustained attack from those whose vested interests would like to see it gone. Last year, an open letter to the government signed by over fifty public figures (including, for example, Jo Brand and David Tennant) warned against the Tory plans to derail the BBC, saying that “It is, of course, right that there is a national debate about the future of the BBC. But attacking the BBC to serve the interests of its commercial rivals would be short-sighted and threatens to devalue not just the BBC itself, but our culture as a whole”. The events of the past twenty-four hours, and the lead-up over the past month and more, has provided a prime opportunity for those out to destroy the BBC to make their voices heard – and in the midst of the attack, those who have been voiceless for many years after suffering terrible abuse as children have once again been drowned out by people in positions of power serving their own interests.

It is not contentious to say that the current government have an interest in the privatisation of pretty much every public service around – the NHS, education, and yes, the BBC as well. In fact, the BBC is one of the main targets, and inevitably so considering News International’s too-close-for-comfort links with the Conservative Party, and David Cameron personally to boot. Government pandering to business is old news: what is worrying now is the position in which the BBC have been left because of this. I contest the idea that the BBC have more of a responsibility for fact-checking and integrity in reporting than other, privately-owned, media outlets. All media outlets should bear the same responsibility. Sadly, this is clearly not the case, and the area in which the BBC comes into its own is often its measured reportage. It isn’t perfect – coverage of events such as the summer riots of 2011 or any form of public protest, for example, have been poor – but when compared to privately-owned media, the difference is clear. The BBC also serves to hold other media corporations in check. One of the main reasons that the UK does not have “news” of extreme a form as the USA (Fox…) is because the BBC serves as a guiding line, and as long as it exists to report a measured, generally central, placid line, its very existence exposes any extreme bias or inaccuracy in other companies. A privatised media of the sort that the British public enjoy laughing at when it exists across the Atlantic is not something that would be beneficial in any way to our society. Indeed, in comparison to false reporting, illegal investigations or just “shoddy journalism” in general, the BBC stands head and shoulders above other media institutions – News International, for example (phone hacking anyone?). Entwhilstle has resigned over his journalists’ poor fact-checking whilst Murdoch’s journalists have broken the law. Yet who remains in their job? Those who wish to see the BBC destroyed have been waiting for an opportunity like this, and they are not going to let it go lightly now it has arrived.

Another thing to consider in this case is the role that social media has played. Newsnight never named Lord McAlpine in its broadcast: it hinted, and Twitter did the rest. Let’s be clear: the BBC should never have run the implication in the first place; it was categorically false, and Messham denied that McAlpine was his attacker as soon as he was shown a photograph. There is no excuse for this mess, as there is no excuse for any journalist not checking their facts. However, Newsnight did not name McAlpine. Twitter, however, did – and because of the way these systems work, it was only a matter of time before a search for “Newsnight” came up with suggestions of searching for “Newsnight paedophile” and then McAlpine’s name. This escalation just proves that in the twenty-first century, where people are more concerned with being the first to Tweet than with achieving any semblance of accuracy, news institutions have to be especially careful – because everything ends up on the Internet. This can be a brilliant thing, and it can be a damaging thing – and over the past week we have seen just the extent of the damage that can be caused. But it is wrong to hold the BBC wholly responsible for this Twitter tirade. This is the nature of the world we live in now, and yes, it means that journalists – especially those in prominent public positions – need to be more careful. This goes beyond the BBC: Sally Bercow (wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons) and George Monbiot (Guardian columnist) both acted stupidly by naming Lord McAlpine (Monbiot, at least, has now apologised). But it also means that we as members of the public, members of social media, have a much greater responsibility in thinking before we Tweet than many may realise.

On top of this, in the clamour of the past twenty-four hours, something seems to have been overlooked: the victims of the child abuse scandal, and in particular Steve Messham. Messham has suffered in a way that no human should have to suffer – and once again, been silenced. The backlash against the BBC and Newsnight in particular serves only to perpetuate the idea that abuse scandals should not be spoken about. Messham will now not be in any hurry to continue to try and identify his attackers – and the course of justice will have been drastically slowed because of this. Media coverage has seized on the BBC’s incompetence (which, by the way, I am not denying – this has been the epitome of shoddy fact-checking) at the expense of the real issue. That a child sex abuse scandal could be co-opted in order to continue the sustained attack the BBC has suffered over the past two years is sickening. The resignation of George Entwhistle shows that, apparently, it is more important to apologise for accidental libel than it is to investigate sexual abuse carried out by somebody in a position of power. Is this really the legacy that the Jimmy Saville case will leave? We need more investigation of events like this – not less. But the silencing of the BBC serves only to discourage investigative journalism of the sort that exposed these scandals in the first place.

Jonathan Dimbleby summed it up well: “It is disgraceful and horribly out of proportion to hound everyone at the BBC in a way that is unarranted and lacks perspective when the real focus should be on what Savile did wrong… This has become a witch-hunt against the BBC.” And in the midst, the abused victims’ voices are silenced once more.

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