BBC crisis: Child abuse and desperate diversions
Sections of the bourgeois press are attempting to conceal their own crisis by hammering the BBC, writes Paul Demarty
A few short months ago, the tabloid press (and some purportedly higher quality titles) were at the tail-end of a serious crisis of legitimacy - the phone-hacking scandal was bleeding out, via the Leveson inquiry, into a very public deconstruction of all the short cuts and lies necessary to keep a gutter rag going. All the creeps of Fleet Street - from egotistical pornographer Richard Desmond, to viceroys of the Murdoch empire, to the sociopathic Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre - were dragged into the spotlight.
Just as that story bled almost imperceptibly outwards from a single conviction for a single crime at a single paper, so the story of Jimmy Savile’s sexual pursuit of the young has grown into a wholesale crisis at the BBC. To be less charitable, the scandal has - in TV parlance - jumped the shark. It has long left behind what it was ‘really’ about (child abuse), and has instead become an excuse for allcomers to pile into the BBC.
This is terribly convenient for Dacre, Desmond and co. Remember the apologetics in the final News of the World? Yes, they admitted, we made some grave mistakes. But don’t forget the good work we did, in exposing all those paedophiles! And so it remains: there is nothing like a good paedophile scare to suspend moral judgment on the scaremonger. That is the underlying story here: the Beeb-bashing from all quarters, besides being hardwired into Murdoch’s and Dacre’s political DNA, is in this context an enormous diversionary tactic.
From their perspective, regrettably, it has thus far been a rip-roaring success.
Ironically, it was not the Daily Mail or The Sun that finally got the scalp they so desperately wanted - that of George Entwistle, the hapless erstwhile director general. It was The Guardian, whose thorough and sensational investigation into phone-hacking got the former into such deep trouble.
It was The Guardian that debunked a Newsnight investigation into a then-unnamed Tory grandee, for alleged acts of child abuse in north Wales decades earlier. It did not take the Twittersphere long to out Lord McAlpine as the subject of the allegations. Unfortunately for the BBC, the allegations are simply unsubstantiated.
In fact, the story is an old one; the journalist behind it, one Angus Stickler, had previously been buried away in BBC radio before decamping to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a relatively young news agency. Stickler had previously been chasing this story, but had found it a hard sell. His source, a now-adult man who had suffered sexual abuse as a teenager, had several times put McAlpine in the frame. But his story had been inconsistent on many details.
Given the psychological effects of sexual trauma, this by no means necessarily makes him a liar. It does, however, make the story extremely shaky from a legal point of view. More to the point, it makes all the more necessary the patient work of corroboration - ie, actual investigative journalism. Whatever the reality of the allegations against McAlpine, the story, in that form, should never have been run.
So why was it? Simple - the BBC was cornered. If it had canned the whole thing, the press attack dogs would have hounded it for covering up for another establishment paedophile. The Savile scandal leaves the BBC open to all sorts of hysterical accusations and, while normally they would be taken with a grain of salt, now the flailing attacks of Dacre and co have a spurious ring of truth to them. So it broadcast the piece, hoping against hope that McAlpine’s name would not be brought into it.
When it was, of course, Entwistle could have come out fighting. Having been on the back foot throughout the whole row, he could have counter-attacked, pointed out the scurrilous nature of the accusations against the BBC and the hidden agendas behind them, and reminded his opponents in the press about their own casual disregard for the truth. Instead, he put in a bumbling, evasive performance on Radio 4’s Today programme, which by all accounts lost him his job.
That it should be a wing of the BBC that did him in, finally, is no surprise. Entwistle sat at the head of a bloated, bureaucratic apparat, the legacy most especially of his predecessor and management-consultancy-speak legend John Birt. As more newsroom jobs are lost, others exiled to Salford and management salaries beefed up, those involved in actually producing content are increasingly alienated from the Gormenghast-like superstructure that squats above them.
Precisely because this is not an effective, corporate-style governance structure, revenge is not only sweet, but quite possible for the journalists. The BBC often likes to trumpet its uniqueness - as a public-service broadcaster not directly under state control - but if there is one thing that marks it out, it is that it is apparently the only organisation in the world where shit rolls uphill.
An old BBC sketch show, Monkey dust, featured a recurring gag about a man emerging from the shadows in a Matthew Hopkins get-up, declaring himself the ‘paedo-finder general’ “by the power invested in me by the Daily Mail”, and invariably whipping those around him into a lynch-mob frenzy despite the utter silliness of his accusations.
And, while the paedophile-baiting is transparently cynical in this particular instance, there is something like an objective psychology to the tabloids; no matter how self-serving their moral crusades, and no matter how utterly hypocritical (the prudish Mail’s habit of publishing neurotically titillating pictures of often young celebrities on its website, the Daily Express’s common owner with a bevy of cable porn channels, and so on), they add up to something real.
That is, ultimately, the petty bourgeois obsession with what Americans call ‘family values’ - the absurd veneration of the (heterosexual) nuclear family. The reality of child abuse is that it, like charity, begins at home - the vast majority of cases see children abused by close family members. The paedophile is thus an intolerable reality for the Mail’s psychology - he is externalised from the family scene as the predatory sex offender, and thus anathematised.
The tabloids’ hatred for the BBC is motivated, in part, by cynical business interests - this is especially true of the Murdoch papers. But, equally, Mail psychology comes into it, with its reactionary bluster about modernity (with its attendant plagues, such as multiculturalism and liberal values) eating away at the fabric of social authority that holds us together (again, the family first and foremost).
The BBC, in this connection, has undergone a remarkable transformation. Once it was an explicitly patrician, moralistic media institution. Yet both the changing nature of broadcast media as such and changes in the political and general culture of society have problematised that role. Once, the BBC was ‘Auntie’ (a benevolent, but stern authority figure). Today, it is a picture-postcard of Blairism.
We should not imagine it to be genuinely subversive in any consistent way. (The Beeb’s coverage of the Gaza attacks is a timely reminder of what really guides its ‘news values’.) Yet, for the Mail psychology, it is emblematic of the liberal nihilism that corrodes society. Thus, it is perfectly natural - to this paranoiac outlook - that the BBC should end up covering for paedophiles.
That is the ‘honest’ insanity of this scandal. What of the cynical point-scoring? It is worth asking whether or not it will actually work. There are surely only so many more paedophiles to be unearthed through this particular line of inquiry - and, whatever approach the papers take to the Leveson report when it finally lands, they will find it difficult to bury the bad news. Indeed, as I write, four former News International employees - including Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson - have been formally charged by the police for corruption.
Murdoch’s empire is, obviously, likely to come in for a storm of criticism - its corrupt relationships with the police and politicians, and its casual attitude to criminality, are what got us into this mess to begin with. Dacre, however, has also received advance notice of a vigorous judicial hairdryer treatment; and frayed relations with the Mail’s proprietors (Lady Rothermere, in particular, is supposed to be tiring of Dacre’s ability to generate bad news).
As for the BBC, it has weathered fiercer storms than this (the David Kelly scandal, for instance), and it will lumber on. Once the outrage has died down, the BBC’s critics will have to provide some kind of way to fix the alleged structural faults. Given that most of the institutional failings over Savile’s sexual appetites took place decades ago, it would seem that the child protection angle has been covered.
As for the failure to broadcast the Newsnight Savile spot, and the failure to can the McAlpine one (and the accompanying, ludicrous expectation that the director general should find time to review every last bit of footage the corporation plans to broadcast), the institutional problems are a necessary excrescence of the BBC’s ‘unique’, semi-detached relationship with the state: the accretion of a self-perpetuating, bureaucratic apparatus utterly unsure of its purpose makes nimble responses to crisis all but impossible. The BBC has no worse a record on truthful reporting than its critics; genuinely restoring some honour to the journalistic profession means a serious assault on the bourgeois media as a whole.