Thursday 7 May 2015

Ruth Dudley Edwards:The BBC has its faults, but there is still much worth celebrating

Published 18/11/2012 | 05:00

No other broadcaster would subject itself to such devastating scrutiny.

These last few months have been the worst of times and the best of times for the BBC.

First the worst. There was the horrendous embarrassment of the dreadful, ill-informed coverage of June's Diamond Jubilee Royal Regatta, in which jolly young BBC presenters who didn't know a destroyer from a canoe wittered banalities at enraged viewers who were aching to hear about history, significance and symbolism. So when the following month the chairman of the BBC Trustees, that amiable arch-Establishment figure, 68-year-old Lord Patten, announced that in September George Entwistle – who as director of vision had overseen that fiasco – would take over as director general, eyebrows were raised.

Now anyone who knew him thought Entwistle a decent bloke, but those who believed the BBC was in need of radical reform of its structure, its risk-averse, bloated management and its smug ethos were dismayed.

Entwistle had hardly moved offices when – in early October – ITV aired a documentary giving the low-down on Jimmy Savile's disgusting and illegal exploitation of the under-age and the vulnerable – sometimes on BBC premises. This was followed by the revelation that the previous December, a few weeks after Savile's death, Peter Rippon, editor of BBC's Newsnight, had pulled a similar investigation, perhaps because it would have upset BBC plans to broadcast three tributes to the posturing old goat.

After two weeks (during which headless-chicken actions included removing Savile from the Desert Island Discs archive), the BBC commissioned an inquiry into why Newsnight had scrapped the programme and another into the culture that prevailed while Savile worked there.

The next day, the BBC's own Panorama (which has a long-standing rivalry with Newsnight) used new interviews and emails that raised embarrassing questions about what Entwistle knew at the time about the decision to drop the Savile programme. There's a BBC joke that "deputy heads will roll", so it was no surprise when Rippon was asked to step aside.

The day after, a badly-briefed Entwistle performed poorly in front of an aggressive select committee of MPs. Asked why as head of vision he had shown no curiosity when told there was a problem about Savile, he explained that at his level it was not a matter for him.

With allegations of abuse by Savile pouring in, the police began making arrests of people who had worked with him in the BBC, including Gary Glitter, Freddie Starr, Dave Lee Travis and a producer.

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