I have refrained from saying too much about the Jimmy Savile saga, not least because any time I mention anything to do with a BBC ‘crisis,’ out from the woodwork come those who continue to defend the Beeb’s false reporting and grossly unprofessional handling of the WMD dossier issue a decade or so ago.
It has been part of the continuing BBC rewriting of that period that former director general Greg Dyke (who was i/c mishandling when it became a crisis) and former (I think) executive Kevin Marsh appear able to parade themselves as independent expert commentators on BBC handling issues. All we need now is Andrew Gilligan and Richard Sambrook to be hired as a crisis management hit team for the new DG and the nonsense will be complete.
It may be no surprise to you that I find it hard to forgive the above mentioned false reporting and unprofessional handling, given the consequences of the reporter’s behaviour, and given the scale of unprofessionalism exposed at the Hutton Inquiry, usually overlooked in the one-sided misreporting the issue continues to attract.
Yet despite my criticisms of the BBC then, and my occasional challenges of the rewriting of history now, I remain a supporter of the BBC – anyone who isn’t should take a look at Fox News to be reminded of what we neither need nor want – and therefore I thought I might throw in a bit of support for the current director general George Entwistle and his fellow executives struggling and failing to calm the storm.
They are being subject to the consequences of something I know from personal experience is a difficult media mood to deal with – that in which an old prism has been replaced by a new one, and the mood generated by the old one is forgotten.The old prism was that Jimmy Savile was a lovable and much loved TV personality who put bums on sitting room armchairs, raised millions for good causes and made kids’ dreams come true, along the way becoming a friend of Royals, top politicians and sundry other establishment figures.
The new prism, clear as I look across the train at a Metro headline ‘Now Savile accused of molesting the dead’, is that Savile was a disgusting pervert and it must have been obvious to everyone and how the hell could he get away with it for so long?
When a prism changes so violently, there is little sympathy for those who are having to deal with the fall out. When David Kelly killed himself, the new prism was one through which a biased media – not least the BBC – viewed every action prior to his death as though it should have been informed by the subsequent knowledge that he had taken his own life.
Likewise the questions put to Entwistle by MPs and by front pages screaming at him come from the prism that says ‘given what we know now, what kind of incompetent are you that you didn’t know then?’ But the same question could be put to the Queen and her courtiers, who agreed to his knighthood, Prince Charles and Princess Diana were she here (and my God, was her life not full of changing media prisms?), Margaret Thatcher, the NHS and sundry other institutions just as gullible as the one which made Savile famous.
Let’s also understand that a lot of the criticism of the BBC has less to do with the issue, serious though it is, and everything to do with usual critics rejoicing at the size of the stick with which they can beat old Auntie.
None of this minimises the scale of the wrongdoing by Savile and the need to get to the heart of why he was allowed to get away with it for the whole of his life. But there is now a nastiness to the Beeb-baiting from MPs and media that risks getting out of hand. I simply don’t agree with John Simpson that this is the biggest crisis for the BBC in his fifty years working for them. I felt that statement was just part of the phenomenon of modern journalism that insists everything has to be a superlative.
Provided the right decisions are taken and properly communicated now -big ifs on current form I agree – I am not even sure this yet represents a full blown crisis. That it represents a full blown frenzy is certain. But that is not the same thing.
The best thing Chris Patten and George Entwistle and their top teams could do is get together, decide to ignore the noise, ask themselves the difficult questions that remain outstanding, answer them and act accordingly.
In short, they need a new prism. At the risk of sparking ‘crisis what crisis?’ headlines, it should start from the premise that this is not yet a major crisis. It is the handling of it, and the failure to push back on a hostile agenda being set by others with their new prism, that risks turning a bad situation into a 24 carat crisis. It is still not too late to stop that happening.