BBC: Two English Extremes

01.10.12 Publication:

Other countries’ popular television stars are generally incomprehensible to foreigners, whether they are game-show hosts, comedians, showgirls or even pop-singers. There is something impenetrably local about mass popular culture. But other countries’ scandals, especially sexual ones, involving those same baffling foreign stars, are still gripping. It is just this way with the scandal in Britain that is now convulsing the world’s most independent, most reputable, seemingly most ethical broadcaster, the dear old BBC.

It is a gripping scandal because of the sex stories, unpleasant though some of them are. It is a gripping scandal because it shows the British both at their best and their worst: at their best, as the BBC has rushed to condemn itself, to beat itself up over its shortcomings; at their worst in the hypocritical attacks on the BBC by our tabloid newspapers, whose moral standards are far worse.

Finally, it is gripping also because the essential arguments lying behind the scandal, about media freedom and media ethics, are strikingly similar to those happening the world over. Just as Italian journalists argue about the new “gag law” and whether it should be possible for a newspaper editor such as Alessandro Sallusti to be sent to prison, Britain’s argument about this scandal reflects also the phone-hacking affair that hit Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers last year and a prevailing nervousness that a stricter system of media regulation is about to be proposed.

The scandal now swirling around the BBC concerns a former presenter of what was in the 1970s and 1980s a long-running music show, “Top of the Pops”, who went on to host children’s programmes and raise a lot of money for charity. It turns out that Sir Jimmy Savile, as he became thanks to his charity work, was a serial sexual abuser both of gullible 14-year-old girls who flocked to the BBC to be take part in “Top of the Pops” and of disabled and mentally ill patients in the various hospitals with which he worked.

That would be bad enough, but now the deeper scandal is that just after Savile’s death at the age of 84 a year ago a prominent BBC current-affairs programme, “Newsnight”, worked on a TV report about accusations from some of his victims, but then dropped the report for reasons that have still not been explained. The scandal was ignited when a rival channel picked up some of the leads the BBC report had found, and now the BBC journalists involved are busy throwing accusations at their bosses. In a wonderfully British touch, on Monday the BBC carried a report by one distinguished current affairs programme, “Panorama”, attacking “Newsnight” by revealing some of its failings. And on Tuesday’s edition of “Newsnight” the programme featured a discussion about itself and its own mistakes.

It is all entertaining. But you might wonder why there is so much fuss about this scandal. Celebrities have been having sex with fans, even very young fans, in all countries, especially since television and pop music combined to create a mass culture. The fact that Jimmy Savile exploited these opportunities is no more surprising than that members of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones also slept with groupies of varying ages. And the fact that Savile also assaulted vulnerable female hospital patients may be disgusting but he is not the first sexual criminal and won’t be the last.

Yet those are not the real issues, the real reasons why this scandal, arising from a rather strange man who many people found rather creepy, will keep on making a loud noise for a long time to come.

There are two real issues involved. One is anxiety about what Dante Alighieri called “ignavia”: the tendency of people to stand and watch and do nothing, even when they know that evil is being done. The BBC and other British institutions, including especially the hospitals and other charities with which Savile was involved, are now going to go through a long period of investigating and soul-searching: did people, including senior people, know what was happening and do nothing about it?

This issue of a lack of moral courage, of complicity by virtue of silence, is in my view a fundamental issue of our age in all western democracies. Both elites and ordinary people stand accused of failing to face up to reality, of failing to act or at least shout loudly when our democracies are being undermined, for example by powerful corporate oligarchies taking a stronger and stronger grip on government. That is the Italy story under Silvio Berlusconi but also, in a different way, the story of the failed financial regulation in Britain and America thanks to the excessive power of the City of London and Wall Street.

The BBC’s Savile scandal is a more minor case than those. But if it focuses some attention on personal responsibility and the sin of ignavia, it will be a good thing. The second real issue is that of media regulation and media responsibilities. Thanks to the phone hacking scandal, which this week widened to a second British newspaper group, the publishers of the tabloid Daily Mirror, a judge will shortly be producing his proposals for how in future the media should be regulated. He is likely to propose replacing the traditional, but wholly ineffectual, British system of self-regulation with a new agency that is given statutory powers.

This will be fiercely opposed by British newspaper editors. The Savile scandal is not directly connected to this: broadcasters such as the BBC are already regulated by a statutory agency. But it will affect the politics of media regulation even so, because BBC “Newsnight”’s foolish decision to suppress their own investigation is going to deepen the belief that the media cannot be trusted to make its own decisions.

To me, a former magazine editor, that is a very sad state of affairs. We in the media need to take responsibility for our actions, and always remain conscious of the trust that our readers and viewers place in us. Yet that also means the media has to take the consequences when it fails to act responsibly, when it violates that trust.