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BBC employees arrive early for work at the new flagship headquarters, New Broadcasting House, in London(Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

A perfect storm?

Emma Wallis
November 15, 2012

Will the crisis currently engulfing the BBC be the last nail in the coffin of an already weakened British media? DW assesses whether press freedom can survive and public confidence be restored.


"This is London", those immortal words might not be uttered any longer on the BBC World Service news bulletins, but the corporation that takes the world to Britain, and Britain to the world, has long been a reliable presence in a constantly changing globe.

Impartiality and accuracy were what the BBC stood for, or so everybody thought. On Wednesday, 'Aunty' as she is affectionately known in Britain, celebrated her 90th birthday on radio, but sadly, this was just a short interlude, in a sorry mess which is currently engulfing the once venerable corporation.

For at the moment, the BBC seems to be folding in on itself "like a house of cards," as Claire Fox remarks. She's a journalist and commentator, and director of the British media think-tank, the Institute of Ideas.

Heads are rolling

The latest crisis was sparked because of the corporation's handling of a huge sex abuse scandal involving former star presenter and one-time darling of the BBC, Jimmy Savile - which has ultimately cost the job of newly-appointed BBC Director General George Entwistle, and other senior managers.

Former Director General George Entwistle (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
George Entwistle resigned after just 54 days as Director General of the BBCImage: Getty Images

Shortly after Savile's death last year at the age of 84, journalists from the BBC's flagship Newsnight program began looking into child abuse claims against him. However, their investigation was spiked. What the BBC did broadcast was an all-singing, all-dancing Christmas tribute to the man who is now seen as one of Britain's most prolific sex offenders.

There has been fevered speculation about a cover up. The BBC protested that Newsnight's then editor, Peter Rippon (who has now also stepped aside), had pulled the story for editorial reasons. But that claim was brushed aside as politicians and the rest of the press started questioning the BBC and calling for a thorough review into its culture and practices.

But does the scandal in fact expose more fundamental problems concerning modern media practice in the UK?

Freedom of the press under threat?

The UK's print media have also taken a beating over the last 18 months as a result of the phone-hacking scandal, which threatened to topple the Murdoch empire, and exposed a string of dirty doings in the heart of the tabloid press. There is now an ongoing public inquiry into the British press, chaired by Lord Justice Leveson.

A picture of the late Jimmy Savile, former BBC presenter, who is now engulfed in allegations of child abuse whilst he was working at the BBC (Photo: Lewis Whyld/PA, File/AP/dapd)
The tinder which sparked the crisis? Former presenter, Jimmy SavileImage: AP

Claire Fox thinks that the two scandals are in fact linked and that the fury of recrimination could end in a more heavily regulated, and perhaps less free, press.

"I think the Leveson inquiry has been a wholly destructive experience for the media," says Fox, "because we've got ourselves into a situation whereby freedom of the press is very much now up for grabs. Many serious journalists felt that they wouldn't be threatened by Leveson, as they felt it would deal with 'tacky tabloids' and made a big distinction between themselves and 'gutter journalism'. Whereas I think you have to defend freedom of the press per se."

A 'perfect storm'?

This situation, she thinks, has created that "perfect storm" of conditions where some are calling for more regulation of journalists. And those accused of malpractice under Leveson are baying for blood when they see that the BBC also gets things wrong.

Transparency International's director Chandu Krishnan is also worried about the health of the British press. He thinks that the Leveson inquiry revealed two fundamental problems: "One is that the relationship between certain sections of the media, and certain members of the political establishment is too cozy for comfort, and the second, is the high degree of concentration of ownership of the media".

The sun on sunday +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
The tabloid press has taken a beatingImage: picture-alliance/dpa

He concludes that, "the system at the moment contains within it very high elements of corruption risk". He refused to be drawn on the BBC crisis specifically, as he didn't think it came within his remit of transparency and corruption, but he did tell DW that: "The problem is that [with a scandal like this] those who have an agenda will always seek to exploit it and harm the institution and we need to guard against that. But at the same time one also has to recognize that there are genuine problems that have been exposed, and need to be addressed, and complacency is no longer an option."

Media fault lines

Although seemingly two very different situations, Leveson and the BBC crisis, expose similar fault lines running through our round-the-clock, on-demand, media world. In a rush to build audiences and retain readers, viewers and listeners, it seems that some media organizations are losing sight of their ethical values.

Newsnight's presenter, Jeremy Paxman, issued a statement in the wake of the departure of the BBC Director General, calling it "a great shame."

His analysis was that "The real problem here is the BBC's decision, in the wake of the Hutton inquiry [a 2003 inquiry into the BBC's editorial practices, related to the Iraq war], to play safe by appointing biddable people. They then compounded the problem by enforcing a series of cuts on program budgets, while bloating the management. That is how you arrive at the current mess on Newsnight."

Politicians and the press

Now the lid has been blown, everything is being questioned. British Prime Minister David Cameron himself admitted, in his testimony to Lord Leveson, that the relationship between politicians and the media, can sometimes get "too cozy".

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron waves as he arrives to give evidence to the Leveson Inquiry (Photo: REUTERS/Olivia Harris)
Prime Minister David Cameron was called to testify at the Leveson inquiryImage: Reuters

Last week, a serving parliamentarian, Nadine Dorries, announced she would appear on reality TV show, "I'm a celebrity get me out of here," meaning she will be away from her desk for up to four weeks. She's expected to take part in "bush tucker trials" in the Australian jungle and to eat dubious parts of kangaroos.

She claims she is taking her message to the people, because the show has much higher viewing figures than any parliamentary debate. Her decision is undoubtedly a symptom of a society where celebrity holds the highest cachet.

"We've lost a lot of regard for straight forward news stories, and that has then been supplemented by comment, not even analysis, which has created a lot of celebrity journalists," says Fox.

Great journalism is 'truth seeking'

"One of the great things about journalism, at its best I mean, is its forensic, investigative truth seeking instincts" Fox told DW. But that, she feels, in recent years, has sometimes been left by the wayside in a stampede for publicity and entertainment.

"[The BBC] has tended to go for documentaries which are more easily accessible and fronted by well-known faces, rather than in-depth, difficult, challenging journalism."

News International Chairman James Murdoch (front L), and his father Rupert Murdoch, are seen appearing before parliamentarian in London in this July 19, 2011
The phone-hacking scandal engulfed the Murdoch empireImage: Reuters

Trying to give the viewer what you think they want is a huge mistake, she thinks. She points to the claim made by Newsnight journalists Liz McLean and Meirion Jones, who worked on the original Savile program, that part of their motivation for pushing for their story to be aired was so the victims could speak.

"That kind of 'attached journalism' is the very opposite of what we need which is a dispassionate, cold calculated but ruthless look at what the story is. I think the idea of journalists being neutral is very important. There has been far too much of journalists deciding they are on the side of something and going out to get the story, instead of truth seeking which is a different thing," Fox said.

A dangerous culture of inquiries

Fox's belief is that what we're now seeing is a kind of shark-feeding frenzy amongst the UK media's biggest fish.

Former Director General Mark Thompson, who has just started his job as CEO of the New York Times, said, "the BBC is the world's greatest broadcaster and I've got no doubt that it will once again regain the public's trust both in the UK and around the world. It's full of people of real integrity and talent, and I've got no doubt it's going to get back on its feet really soon."

Fox hopes this too, but fears for the culture of inquiries that now seems to be taking over the British Media and the establishment.

"I just don't think that any of these inquiries are going to do anything other than create an even more fetid atmosphere of people watching their backs, being careful of what they say, [and] looking over their shoulders," she said. She wonders where it will all end.

A system with more teeth?

Krishnan of Transparency International hopes that it will end with "a better regime in terms of regulation of the media. We need a system better than we have right now, a system that ensures that there are more teeth, but without curbing press freedom. And where wrong-doing is exposed there should be very strong sanctions."

But in an atmosphere where everyone is rushing to correct errors of the past, rather than stand back and think clearly, it's perhaps not surprising that some people "can't see the wood for the trees," as Fox puts it. And that, she says, is a form of cover up in itself.

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