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Employees arriving for work at the BBC's Broadcasting House (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

BBC scandal

Interview: Günther Birkenstock / mll
November 12, 2012

The Director General of the BBC, the UK's public broadcaster, has resigned over the latest in a series of scandals. But UK expert Gerhard Dannemann says the BBC does not require fundamental restructuring.


Two scandals have rocked the British Broadcasting Corporation. The first involves the TV entertainer, Jimmy Savile, who died last year and is now alleged to have abused hundreds of children over a period of decades. The BBC is said to have ignored speculation and rumors over the issue at the time. A report about Savile commissioned last year for the Newsnight daily current affairs program was never broadcast. It's alleged that senior editors intervened to stop it.

The second scandal also involves Newsnight. A story about child abuse included the accusation that a senior Conservative politician had been identified as an abuser. He was not named but quickly identified as Alistair McAlpine, a former Treasurer of the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher. The witness quoted in the film admitted later that he had been mistaken.

BBC Director General George Entwistle resigned this weekend as a consequence, and Director of News Helen Boaden and her deputy, Steve Mitchell, have stepped aside while investigations into this second scandal continue.

Deutsche Welle: The British conservative MP Philip Davies has called for the resignation of the chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, and a radical reform of the broadcaster, otherwise the future of the BBC will be uncertain. Do you agree with him?

The BBC went through its last reforms five years ago. The question isn't really about the structure of the BBC, but about what made it possible that, in two reports on the same topic of the sexual abuse of children, the pendulum could swing so far in one direction and then so far in the other. One report wasn't broadcast and another was broadcast that shouldn't have been. And one asks: where's the bigger difficulty? The first one is: was something kept quiet that might have gone further up the hierarchy? And the second one is about shoddy research, and in that case I would simply look at the people who put the story together.

Prof. Dr. Gerhard Dannemann
Dannemann sees serious failures at the BBCImage: gbz HU Berlin

Does this scandal show, in your opinion, that the BBC doesn't work as solidly and as seriously as one tended to think in the past, or is this a one-off?

The accumulation of incidents is of course very uncomfortable for the BBC. The journalists really should have done beforehand what they did afterwards - they should have shown a picture of the politician Alistair McAlpine to the man who thought he had recognized him. They didn't do that, and that's what one wouldn't have expected from the BBC. The other is something that has not yet been explained. There was a critical report about Jimmy Savile, who was very closely linked to the BBC, and the report was not broadcast. The subject is still going backwards and forwards: was the report not clear enough content-wise, or was there intervention from above to say that they didn't want this story?

As far as the failure in the research about Alastair McAlpine is concerned, one could assume that it was a one-off mistake, but with regards to the cover-up of the abuse by the TV star - that's seems like a fault in the system.

Yes, that's not quite clear yet. The man in charge of Newsnight, in which the report would have run, Peter Rippen, tried to present this as a normal program decision. But he's now resigned. What will be really uncomfortable for the BBC is if it turns out that they shut their eyes to what was going on for decades.

Sir Jimmy Savile in 2008 (Photo: Lewis Whyld/PA, File/AP/dapd)
It's alleged that the BBC covered up Savile's crimes over decadesImage: AP

Now there's a political dimension: will people be playing politics with this failure by the BBC?

The Tories have thought for a long time that the BBC isn't fair towards them. That's a kind of accepted opinion, which might explain why a Tory MP has called for Chris Patten's resignation. Interestingly, Patten is himself a Tory and has won a lot of respect across all the parties. In her first statement on the resignation, Labour MP Harriet Harman criticized the generous golden handshake the former Director-General, George Entwhistle, is getting, but she supported Lord Patten. The Liberal Democrats have so far not said anything. Prime Minister David Cameron also supports Patten. So one can't see any party that is clearly against him.

Who could gain political advantage from this scandal?

That's not so easy to answer, because the BBC is really not under party political control. The BBC Trust is not as stacked with politicians as the boards of German public broadcasters are. There needs to be a fundamental reform of the BBC regarding the way programs are authorized for broadcast, but also regarding basic standards of journalism. But I doubt if one needs to completely restructure the BBC for that.

Do you think that Chris Patten will have to go?

No, not as long as the Tories and Labour support him, he won't have to go. And it would be the wrong time for such a move.

Gerhard Dannemann is a professor at the Centre for British Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

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