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Jim'll Break It
The BBC doesn't just do news. it makes dramas, soaps and comedies and covers spectator sports, including the spectator sport of Westminster debates. It is the head office of The Office, the terrestrial home of Dr. Who, the organization that has invested in David Attenborough's extraordinary series about the natural world over three decades. But the predicament in which the BBC finds itself is, like its best programming, almost entirely of its own making. No organization can expect to protect itself against an employee with criminal tendencies, but an internal inquiry launched last month into the culture and practices at the BBC during Savile's career is expected to highlight historical failures of management. Savile presented programs aimed at children and teens, such as the chart show Top of the Pops and Jim'll Fix It, a series in which he helped young viewers realize modest but otherwise unattainable wishes. He was at least once caught on camera groping a young girl on one of his shows. Rumors circulated about much more serious offscreen sexual assaults on youngsters, but the BBC continued to employ him.
Last year, shortly after Savile's death at 84, the BBC's 32-year-old flagship current-affairs show Newsnight began to probe the rumors even as its entertainment divisions prepared Savile hagiographies for its Christmas schedule. A separate internal inquiry is now examining the chain of events that saw Newsnight spike its report while the tributes went ahead. The decision came to light only in October 2012, when the BBC's commercial rival ITV screened its own Savile exposé. Former director general Mark Thompson, who exited the BBC just two months ago and took the reins as chief executive of the New York Times Co. on Nov. 12, told the Times that although he was informed that Newsnight was dropping its Savile investigation, "it didn't occur to me that there was a contemporary corporate interest to defend. You can say it's a lack of imagination."
Entwistle, promoted from head of BBC Television or in BBC speak, Director of Vision to fill Thompson's shoes, might have stanched the BBC's self-inflicted wounds by ensuring that its reporting, especially by Newsnight, was unimpeachable. Instead, as the organization began investigating its past mistakes over Savile, management sidelined Newsnight's editor and decreed that the BBC's two most senior news executives should be recused from making judgments on any Savile-related programming. They were therefore not alerted in advance to a Nov. 2 Newsnight broadcast alleging that an unnamed Conservative politician from Margaret Thatcher's era abused a boy at a children's home in Wales in the 1970s.
The claims were false and had no link to Savile apart from the nature of the alleged crime. The politician, former Conservative Party treasurer Lord McAlpine, his identity swiftly revealed on the Internet, released a statement on Nov. 9 protesting the "seriously defamatory" allegations. The next morning, Entwistle appeared on another flagship news show, BBC Radio 4's Today. He revealed that although the director general is also the BBC's editor in chief, he had not been consulted before Newsnight aired. "The number of things that there are going on in the BBC mean that when something is referred to me and brought to my attention, I engage with it," he said. During the course of the same day, the subject of Entwistle's own future was brought to his attention. He resigned.
The departure of its top executive solves nothing for an organization that got into trouble at least in part because of a lack of direction from the top. Hungry competitors, diverse opponents of a public broadcasting model and politicians, many on the right, who see in the BBC a bastion of liberalism: all are determined not to let a good crisis go to waste. In the U.K., satellite broadcaster BSkyB, founded and partly owned by Rupert Murdoch, is one of the BBC's largest rivals. "BBC mess gives [U.K. Prime Minister David] Cameron golden opportunity properly [to] reorganize great public broadcaster," the media baron tweeted on Nov. 11.
There is no small irony in Murdoch's presuming to give advice. Revelations in 2011 that journalists at Murdoch's Sunday tabloid News of the World had for years systematically hacked the phones of sources, politicians and celebrities triggered a crisis of confidence afflicting the British press and tarnished complicit police and politicians, the latter already in bad odor because of a scandal over parliamentarians' expenses that has rumbled on since 2009.
Until the past few weeks, the BBC had sailed above the fray, a rare institution that continued to command the trust of the majority. But the BBC's talent for turning crises into award-winning dramas is exceeded only by its ability to turn dramas into crises. The last really bad one was in 2003, when the BBC found itself locked in a battle with the Labour government over a Today report that Labour spin doctors had "sexed up" the Iraq dossier published to garner support for military action against Saddam Hussein.
The contretemps led to the resignations, in January 2004, of the BBC's then top team, director general Greg Dyke and chairman Gavyn Davies. The BBC replaced its board of governors with the BBC Trust, charged with the imprecise mission of protecting the interests of license-fee payers. Headed by Lord Patten the last British governor of Hong Kong, now looking less than secure as BBC chairman the trust has appointed as acting director general Tim Davie, a former music-radio executive and Pepsi marketing man with no journalistic experience. He heads a staff demoralized not only by recent events but also by several years of restructuring that have seen staff numbers cut by more than 3,000 from a high point of 23,199. These cuts, say critics, have sacrificed those with a lifetime of crucial journalistic experience. "There used to be a sense of people with wisdom and experience to make judgment calls," says Heather Rabbatts, a former BBC governor. "Those relationships have been weakened."
Others are confident that the BBC will endure. "The BBC has had crises before, and this is the biggest crisis since the last big crisis," says Dimbleby. "It will emerge." He may be right, but the British Empire once seemed inviolable too. And two factors will determine the shape in which the BBC emerges. The first is the changing nature of the environment in which it operates. And the second is the extent to which the battered giant can overcome its cumbersome management processes and institutional smugness to effect reforms from within.