Monday 18 November 2019

Doing nothing on Savile wasn't enough

Avoidance seemed to be the BBC's only plan in dealing with the scandal, writes Declan Lynch

IT'S a great country they've got there. Towards the end of 2011, the first steps were taken on the journey that would lead to this most hideous scandal involving one of the great "characters" of British public life, and one of its most august institutions. And towards the end of 2012, men were already appearing in front of Commons committees to explain themselves.

In fact, it's better than that. The institution in question was hammered on TV by an independent investigator and then it was hammered even more by itself, in a programme broadcast on a Monday night... and by Tuesday morning the director general of that institution was being barbecued by MPs with the TV cameras rolling.

Yes, it's quite a country they've got there. For some reason best known to themselves, in Britain they don't need to do these things over a period, of say, 25 years, with no pictures of any kind, and lawyers everywhere, and nothing happening at the end.

But it's not all good. Indeed, there are many things that are bad about the BBC these days. From the banality of its football pundits to its inability to hang on to Jonathan Ross, there is now a terrible ordinariness about the BBC, a sense that it has become just another digital channel out there. Indeed, whenever it finds itself in trouble, it reminds us just how little we routinely watch the BBC any more, how it has fallen from being an automatic choice to being merely Number 141.

But no matter how bad things have got, I really don't think that Newsnight -- as has been alleged by some -- would have abandoned its investigation into Jimmy Savile purely for the sake of that glittering Christmas tribute presented by Mr Shane Richie.

I doubt that the executive class at the BBC would be capable of organising such a conspiracy any more. I sense there was more of a passive approach, the desire to have a quiet life, rather than to pursue a story which seemed to promise so much aggravation for the BBC itself, on so many levels. As we have observed in other areas, the executive culture is averse to any form of aggravation that might require an act of intelligent decision-making.

So this Savile business, to anybody in the higher pay grades, must have looked like Aggravation City, Arizona.

Again, rather than engaging in some twisted masterplan, at the end of which we find a triumphant performance by Mr Shane Richie, perhaps the most powerful instinct on the part of those in charge was to do nothing. For everyone involved indeed, to do nothing. And unfortunately, for once, it wasn't enough.

If there was any kind of a plan involved, it was one of avoidance. And as we look through the statements of the Newsnight editor Peter Rippon, we can see a particular form of avoidance coming into play, one that is quite common in certain areas of journalism.

"Newsnight is not normally interested in celebrity expose," he blogged. In this we can hear a note of lofty disdain that we hear so often from our more self-regarding brethren. It's the kind of line that might sound right at a dinner party in Notting Hill or indeed in the fragrant drawing rooms of Dublin 6, and yet for all its high-minded resonance, it is strangely lacking in sophistication.

Indeed, anybody who is engaged in more intelligent forms of journalism would never utter such a crude generalisation -- not to mention such an inane prejudice.

So Newsnight is "not normally" interested in celebrity expose? These people are supposed to be journalists, who ideally are interested in everything. What is possibly to be gained by declaring that there is a normal range of interests for journalists of their eminence, beyond which they will not go? Or, to put it another way, who the hell do they think they are?

Clearly they hadn't thought this one through, but then not thinking things through is the essence of all prejudice. By placing themselves above "celebrity expose", it never occurred to them that one day there might be a "celebrity expose" which would also be an expose of the BBC, the music business, parts of the health and social services, and much of British society in general for roughly the last 50 years.

In that line of Rippon's you could also hear an echo of the old chestnut that "what is interesting to the public is not necessarily in the public interest", a line which can often be heard too, coming pompously from the journalistic branch of Official Ireland.

For a long time, Newsnight itself has been diminished by all that prim detachment, so that at times it is not interesting to the public, nor is it in the public interest, nor is it any combination of these. As one commentator put it, "there's some great story going on all day, and I turn on Newsnight thinking that they surely can't let me down again... and they do".

We are back with that culture of avoidance. In avoiding the Savile story, the attitude of Peter Rippon is like that of the man who fears he may have to answer for something at a dinner party. And who doesn't realise that the solution is to stop going to dinner parties.

Sunday Independent

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