Nick Cohen says there’s a scandal at the BBC that nobody dares talk about.
The scandal is simply this: the BBC is forcing out or demoting the journalists who exposed Jimmy Savile as a voracious abuser of girls. As Meirion Jones put it to me: “There is a small group of powerful people at the BBC who think it would have been better if the truth about Savile had never come out. And they aim to punish the reporters who revealed it.”
Jones was one of the BBC’s best investigative producers. He had suspected that Savile was not the “national treasure” the BBC, NHS, monarchy and public adored, ever since he had seen Savile take girls away in his car from an approved school his aunt ran in the 1970s. He broke the story which showed that Savile was one of the most prolific sex abusers in British history, and handed the BBC what would have been one of its biggest scoops. If it had run it. Which, of course, it did not. The editor of Newsnight banned the report. Thus began a cover-up which tore the BBC apart.
Close ranks, boys!
They fired Jones last week, and they forced his reporter on the Savile film, Liz MacKean, out too.
“When the Savile scandal broke,” she told me, “the BBC tried to smear my reputation. They said they had banned the film because Meirion and I had produced shoddy journalism. I stayed to fight them, but I knew they would make me leave in the end. Managers would look through me as if I wasn’t there. I went because I knew I was never going to appear on screen again.”
The BBC seemed to have gotten it right at one point…
Panorama responded magnificently to the news that the BBC had killed the Savile scoop. It broadcast a special documentary, which earned the highest audience in the programme’s history. Jones and MacKean described how their journalism had been suppressed, and Panorama went on to document Savile’s crimes. How open the BBC is, I thought. What other institution would subject itself to the same level of self-criticism?
What a fool I was. Since then, BBC managers have shifted Tom Giles, the editor ofPanorama, out of news. Peter Horrocks, an executive who insisted throughout the scandal that the BBC must behave ethically, announced last September that he was resigning to “find new challenges”. Clive Edwards, who as commissioning editor for current affairs oversaw the Panorama documentary, was demoted. The television trade press reported recently that his future is “not yet clear” (which doesn’t sound as if he has much of a future at all).
There are more demotions and promotions that fit the pattern.
I could go on, but I am sure you are weary of bog-standard jobsworths. The wider point is that the interests of those at the top of an organisation and the interests of the organisation can be miles apart.
If the BBC had exposed Savile, viewers would have admired its honesty. If it had bent over backwards to ensure that Jones and MacKean did not suffer for speaking out, everyone would say that it was behaving as a free institution should, rather than looking like the official broadcaster of a paranoid dictatorship or the board of directors of HSBC.
In the banks, the NHS, the police or the BBC, the greatest threats to those in charge, however, are not threats to the institution but threats to their status. If subordinates can contradict them, how can they justify their salaries and the prestige that goes with them? The Pollard review into Savile showed that status anxiety was generating real hatred at the top of the BBC.
That sounds familiar. We are up here, peasants; we can’t hear you. Leave your tribute in a basket and we’ll haul it up.
The power of hierarchies is hard to break. But if you want to fight fraud in the City or the rape of children, it has to be broken. A start can be made by insisting that everyone from John Humphrys in the morning to Evan Davis at night tells the truth about the purge of the BBC’s truth tellers.
But without hierarchies, what would the peasants have to ogle at?