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Monday, November 12, 2012 

Through the media looking glass.

Where to even begin? It's as though over the weekend we fell through the looking glass, into an eerily familiar yet entirely different world. It's one where the Sun, yes, the Sun, can accuse both the BBC and the Guardian of "paedophile hysteria". It's one where spectres of the past can re-emerge and be regarded as wise sages, where newspaper editors that ignored or played down their own failings can cheer the bloodshed at a rival and demand more, and one where there's always something or someone else that can be blamed.

We must though start with Newsnight. We could, as the report by Ken Macquarrie has done, put the majority of the blame on the fact that the programme was in disarray following the "stepping aside" of numerous editors and managers while the various inquiries into the failings over Savile are taking place. It certainly explains somewhat how the report on the abuse at Bryn Estyn came to be broadcast within a week of the investigation being authorised. It doesn't however even begin to make clear how the journalists responsible for the piece justified it to themselves: this was a story that would have disgraced most blogs. Believing that by not naming the senior former Tory politician they were accusing they had protected themselves, they didn't so much as show Steve Messham a photograph of Lord McAlpine, nor did they contact McAlpine for comment. Rather than trace the other source who backed Messham's account, they simply ran with it. The first rule of investigative journalism is that you check the facts repeatedly, and then you check once again for good measure.

As has since become clear, Messham has spent the last twenty years wrongly believing that Lord McAlpine was one of his abusers. It seems to be an honest mistake based on more than understandable confusion, but it was one that would have fallen apart had this been a proper investigation.  Most importantly, as the Graun's piece on Friday reported, the Waterhouse inquiry discounted the possibility McAlpine was involved in the abuse as Messham's evidence was inconclusive.  Also key was that Messham believed his abuser was dead at the time of the inquiry, while McAlpine is still very much alive now.  Moreover, this isn't the first time Messham has taken his allegations to the media: there was as the Heresiarch notes a BBC documentary on Bryn Estyn in 1999; Private Eye according to reports discounted the possibility of McAlpine's involvement; and, fatefully, the long defunct Scallywag magazine ran the claims back in the early 90s.

Those reports from Scallywag, reprinted by the truly credible son of God David Icke, have been doing the rounds on the internet for years.  Often featured alongside the thoroughly debunked claims of a establishment paedophile ring in Scotland and Tony Blair's slapping of a D-Notice on Peter Mandelson's involvement in child abuse (reports which ignore entirely how the D-Notice committee works), they've become a conspiracy staple.  That the BBC, of all organisations, either didn't know of how long-standing these allegations were and how dubious those pushing them are, or simply wasn't aware is inexcusable.  As much as you can understand Newsnight's apparent determination to get back on the front foot as soon as it could, alarm bells should have rang from the outset.  Is it possible the journalists responsible, including those from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, felt this was a way to get back at all those, the Conservative party among them, who had criticised the BBC by pointing the finger straight back at them?

Whether it was or not, George Entwistle was right to resign.  Scapegoat or otherwise, his not being aware of the Graun's report on the accuracy of Newsnight's story as he was preparing to give a speech spoke of someone out of the loop, unable or unwilling to get a grip.  The decision by the acting director-general Tim Davie to set out exactly who is in a position of responsibility is a good start, but it must be a very temporary situation: if possible, the Pollard review should be accelerated so that those who've "stepped aside" can either return to their jobs or replacements can be made forthwith.  Equally clear is that the BBC's management structure needs an urgent overhaul; the BBC Trust, acting as both regulator and defender cannot continue to exist in its current state.  An wholly independent trust is now needed.  Likewise, the director-general simply cannot remain as editor-in-chief of news, expected to be aware of every investigative report, while also running an organisation as large as the BBC has become (and it should be stressed, should more or less remain).

Some perspective is nonetheless sorely needed.  Ever since the Exposure programme on Savile, what's happened is a classic instance of a moral panic.  To say this helps absolutely no one is an understatement: we've gone from one extreme, that of silence, to one where allegations about almost anyone famous during the 70s so much as hugging someone young a little too tightly have been sprayed about like deodorant by a malodorous hormonal teenager.  With the collapse of Newsnight's credibility, there's the potential that we'll go back to the original position.  If that happens, the BBC is hardly the only organisation to blame.  The Sun last week ran a series of utterly ludicrous articles linking Savile to the Yorkshire Ripper, based on little more than how the body of one of Peter Sutcliffe's victims was found near to Savile's flat in Leeds.  Considering how quickly Savile has gone from charity fundraiser to "one of those most prolific child sex offenders" the country has seen, as well as potential necrophile, murderer was bound to come up sooner or later.  The Daily Star meanwhile has ran a Savile story on its front page every day for the past two weeks.

Even those who should know better, such as George Monbiot, have found themselves caught up in this storm of paedophile finding.  When a mood like this takes over, it's often the case that those who previously were rightly ignored and ridiculed find their imaginings are seen in a different light.  All it takes is a tweet from someone with a decent number of followers, and the damage can be done.  When we then get Philip Schofield presenting the prime minister with a whole series of names his researchers have dug up via a Google search, asking that he speak with them, it's the equivalent of taking seriously the proclamations of street preachers.

It's also a wonderful opportunity for the settling of scores.  The press as a whole is terrified that Leveson's shortly to be revealed recommendations for reform of regulation will involve some variety of statutory underpinning, and it sees this as a great chance to prove that everyone is equally guilty.  The Sun's attack today on Chris Patten is remarkable for its brutality, and it is of course in no way influenced by the way Patten showed how Murdoch caved into the Chinese authorities by refusing to publish his book on his time as last governor of Hong Kong.  Its linking of the Guardian to the BBC is also utterly transparent, on Saturday picking on Monbiot without mentioning it was the Graun that debunked the Newsnight report, while today it describes the BBC "[A]s the broadcasting arm of the muck-raking Guardian newspaper".  Would that be the same muck-raking Guardian newspaper that exposed the phone hacking scandal by any chance, and the same scandal that the Sun's former editor is awaiting criminal trial over?  The Mail meanwhile could hardly be banging the drum harder against more rigorous regulation, with Paul Dacre in apparent terror of Leveson's personal judgement on him, at least according to Private Eye.

None of this is to understate the BBC's failings.  The resignations forced by Lord Hutton's report into the sexed up Iraq dossier were one thing; this has been a disaster entirely of the BBC's own making.  What needs to happen now is a further opening up of the corporation, with cutbacks made not to programmes or journalists as has been the pattern of the last few years but to the layers of management that so singularly failed to prevent this travesty.  Only then can a fightback begin, both to regain lost trust and beat back those who wish for an end to the licence fee altogether.

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