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Martin Bell: BBC will survive Savile but it must stop playing safe

THE BBC in turmoil? An easy, world-weary reaction would be a shrug. When has it not been? The turbulence reached such a point during the term of office of the previous director-general, Mark Thompson, that if he wanted a holiday he would cross the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2, the one place from which he could not be flown back to deal with the crisis of the day.

On earlier occasions, when he was rushed back to his desk and the crisis eventually subsided, he would then have to face questions about the cost of the flight.

This one is different.

It is a crisis of confidence that reaches back to Jimmy Savile's heyday on 'Top Of The Pops' and casts shadows on the reputations of some of the leading figures in the BBC of today.

It suggests a culture of timidity which, now it has been exposed, is doing the corporation incalculable damage. It has been lurking there for some years.

This crisis, in so far as it involves the 'Newsnight' decision to pull its Savile investigation, arises from a programme not stepping up to the mark in the first place.

'Newsnight' is a British institution, with a reputation built on fearless questioning and the breaking of new ground. It is either that or, as they say within its embattled walls, it is merely a "Fat Ten" -- that is, it repeats at greater length the narratives of the 10 o'clock news on BBC One that precedes it.

To understand where we are today, it might be helpful to go back to where we were 40 or 50 years ago. The BBC was not then the centralised and over-controlled organisation that it is now.

Over time, the rivalries diminished as operations were centralised and a sort of truce set in. A news reporter was occasionally let off the leash and loaned to 'Panorama', though I remember that in 1993 when I did a 'Panorama' on Bosnia there was some internal resistance on the grounds that I was not a "proper" 'Panorama' reporter.

All that ended with director-general John Birt. He knocked heads together and merged various baronies into a single directorate.

It seemed a prudent move and ended decades of wasteful competition. But it introduced tighter control from the centre and reined in the free spirits on the periphery.

I remember an editor of the 'Nine O'Clock News' (then BBC TV's flagship news programme) telling me he would rather like to know more about what I was up to; but as I was the one being shot at and he was not, he would let it pass for a while.

Everything changed again in 2003, with Andrew Gilligan's ill-fated broadcast on the 'Today' programme about the alleged "sexing up" of the evidence to justify the war in Iraq. The furore that followed was seismic even by today's standards, and led swiftly to the Hutton Inquiry, to the departure of Greg Dyke as director-general and to wholesale changes in the BBC's structures and practices.

The old freebooting days were over. Talented programme editors felt that not only were their programmes hampered, so were their careers.

George Entwistle, the BBC's new director-general, will find himself sailing into a perfect storm when he appears before a UK parliamentary committee today.

A former editor of 'Newsnight', he was the BBC's Head of Vision (whatever that means) when the Savile programme was pulled. Did he really not wonder why? Did the Head of Vision have a blind spot?

IT would be good if, along with the expected exonerations, he could offer some ideas about how he proposes to steady the ship -- if indeed he does not go down with it.

For once I am inclined to agree with my former colleague, John Simpson, that this is the most serious crisis the BBC has faced in our careers.

It undermines the trust that should lie at the heart of the national broadcaster's relationship with its public. If it lacks that trust it has nothing left but a bunch of programmes under a permanent cloud.

The loss of nerve is nightmarish.

I happen to believe that the BBC will survive -- not because it is too big to fail, but because its survival is in the public interest.

Let the inquiries go to work. It is encouraging that the first, into the apparent 'Newsnight' cover-up, is to be led by Nick Pollard, the former head of Sky News. He knows his BBC -- he was a down-table sub-editor on the one o'clock news 20 years ago.

It was a bolder, better BBC then. It must stop playing safe. It must take risks again. It must disenthrall itself.

Martin Bell is a former BBC war correspondent and was an independent MP from 1997 to 2001

Irish Independent