Will the BBC "do a Murdoch" and close Newsnight?

The troubled current affairs show has suspended all investigations and a senior executive has been order to examine its botched report into allegations of child abuse at a Welsh care home.

The BBC's flagship late-night current affairs show, Newsnight, is facing an uncertain future after a second scandal related to investigations of sexual abuse.

The Friday night edition of the programme carried an on-air apology for an investigation on 2 November which wrongly hinted that Tory peer Lord McAlpine was involved in a paedophile ring at the Bryn Estyn care home. Although McAlpine was not named on the show, the report stoked speculation on social media sites over his identity. He has since denied the allegations, and abuse victim Steve Messham has said that he wrongly identified him.

In a statement released yesterday, the BBC said:

1. A senior news executive has been sent in to supervise tonight’s edition of Newsnight

2. An apology will be carried in full on Newsnight tonight

3. Ken MacQuarrie, Director BBC Scotland, will write an urgent report for the DG covering what happened on this Newsnight investigation

4. There will be an immediate pause in all Newsnight investigations to assess editorial robustness and supervision

5. There will be an immediate suspension of all co-productions with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism across the BBC

The future of Newsnight is now being openly discussed, with its own presenter, Eddie Mair, asking a guest "Is Newsnight toast?" and concluding the programme by asking: "That's all we have for tonight. Newsnight will be back on Monday. Probably."

Yesterday's edition carried no editor's name on the credits - Peter Rippon having previously stepped aside over an "inaccurate" blog explaining why he decided not to run an expose of sexual abuse perpetrated by Jimmy Savile.

The fact that this is a second error relating to reports on historic child abuse is a catastrophe for Newsnight - particularly as the BBC's director-general, George Entwistle, used to work there. He was yesterday touring the studios (although only the BBC ones, rival outlets noted) to explain what happens next.

He said that shutting the programme down - as Rupert Murdoch did to the News of the World when the scandals there became too toxic - was a "disproportionate" response, although he acknowledged the BBC was suffering a "crisis of trust".

He told John Humphreys on Radio 4's Today programme that he expected Newsnight staff to be asked questions:

Did the journalists carry out basic checks? Did they show Mr Messham the picture? Did they put allegations to the individual? Did they think of putting allegations to the individual? If they did not why not? And did they have any corroboration of any kind? These are the things we need to understand because this film as I say had the legal referral, was referred up through the chain yet it went ahead. There's some complexity here I absolutely need to get to the bottom of.

The Newsnight investigation has landed the programme in trouble. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Why the Psychoactive Substances Act is much better than anyone will admit

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity