News Analysis

Friday 22 August 2014

Karen Coleman: Latest BBC disaster is eerily similar to RTE fiasco

Published 13/11/2012 | 17:00

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The crisis engulfing the BBC is eerily similar to the fiasco that led to RTE's 'Prime Time Investigates' programme being axed after it wrongly accused Fr Kevin Reynolds of abusing a young African woman and fathering a child by her. Both catastrophes raise serious questions about the journalistic standards in these large, well-resourced organisations.

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When the BBC gets it wrong it has wide ramifications, as it is a standard bearer for many of us in the media and it has the resources to undertake robust investigative work. That is a luxury many media organisations cannot afford as they struggle to battle the recession and competition from online outlets.

Ironically, the BBC programme that's responsible for the latest fiasco is 'Newsnight', which was already in trouble over the decision by its editor to ditch investigations into Jimmy Savile.

On November 2, 'Newsnight' broadcast a report investigating child abuse scandals in north Wales. The programme carried an interview with Steve Meesham, who claimed he had been abused as a child by a senior Thatcher-era Tory official. Although 'Newsnight' did not actually name Lord Alistair McAlpine, the programme sparked an internet frenzy of speculation and the Tory peer was wrongly identified as Mr Meesham's abuser.

Last Friday, Lord McAlpine robustly defended his reputation and denied the allegations. Steve Meesham then admitted that he had wrongly identified the Tory peer as his childhood abuser. 'Newsnight' was forced to broadcast a statement admitting it had made a grave error in implicating Lord McAlpine in the allegations. Things rapidly unravelled over the weekend and George Entwistle, the BBC's new Director General, resigned.

The 'Newsnight' report was actually made by the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which was to set a gold standard in investigative journalism. Its treatment of Lord McAlpine falls so far short of those standards it beggars belief. The team involved in the programme never asked him for an interview to address the allegations being made against him. And it seems they never presented Steve Meesham with a photograph of the Tory peer to ensure he was indeed the man he believed had abused him as a child.

The series of catastrophes on the 'Newsnight' programme bear a remarkable resemblance to what happened to RTE's 'Mission to Prey' disaster.

It too failed to give Fr Kevin Reynolds proper scope to address the damaging allegations being made against him. Worse still, those involved in the programme ignored pleas by Fr Reynolds to take a paternity test to prove he was not the father of the child.

RTE is still reeling from that disaster, as the BBC is from its recent mistakes. The last thing it needed was another scandal.

'Newsnight' is already in deep trouble over the way it spiked investigations into the paedophile Jimmy Savile. The controversy caused by that decision has diverted attention away from the staggering series of allegations now emerging against the sleazy DJ. If ITV had not gone ahead with its own investigation into the late celebrity, we may never have known about Savile's tawdry past.

The BBC is now conducting an inquiry into why 'Newsnight' dropped its investigative report into Savile. A key question is whether the programme's editor came under pressure from superiors because a negative report on Savile would have impacted on the glowing, three-part tribute it had already planned to broadcast on him around the same time.

The BBC also needs to ask a lot more questions about the way Jimmy Savile was treated when he worked for the corporation. Did people involved in his television shows know he was abusing teenage girls backstage?

As a former BBC employee, I find it quite unbelievable that those involved with his programmes such as 'Top of the Pops' could not have known nor, at the very least, been suspicious about his activities with young girls. Were they genuinely ignorant of his alleged abusive behaviour or did they turn a blind eye because he was a superstar?

The BBC has to conduct a thorough investigation into Savile's legacy during his time with the broadcaster. As a recipient of considerable public money, it is under enormous pressure to ensure its licence fee is justified and that it spends taxpayers' hard-earned cash correctly.

The same goes for RTE, which is one of the few media organisations in this country with enough resources to undertake serious investigative journalism. That is something we desperately need in Ireland, especially when ever-greater chunks of our media are owned by just a few powerful people. An erosion of media freedom would be a real threat to our democracy.

We need to have strong investigative journalism here but we also need to know that those undertaking it apply the high levels of rigorous editorial standards required.

Irish Independent

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