We do not yet know the whole truth of what happened with the Huw Edwards case and who was damaged by it. But there has been a full-blown outbreak of the culture wars in the media, with public service broadcasting under attack from commercial interests and the politicians who’ve always loathed the BBC. It was the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, Lee Anderson, who seized on the story to say: “It’s time this taxpayer-funded safe haven for perverts was made a subscription service.”
This kind of wanton destructiveness, and fear of a world run entirely by Murdoch and Musk and the rest, fires up those of us who support the corporation. As a former executive I cannot be impartial, but it is a simple fact that the future of the BBC is in doubt – and the task facing the director-general, Tim Davie, of leading it through the latest turbulence to a secure and properly funded future, becomes ever more difficult.
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Recent weeks have shown that it’s not just a matter of making the corporation’s complaints process better, which it clearly needs to do. The most acute dilemma for Davie is that he is both the BBC’s chief executive and its editor-in-chief. It simply doesn’t wash in a crisis to say, “That was an independent decision taken by BBC News.” The corporate interests are inextricably linked with the journalism. There is no escaping the responsibility to find the right template for reporting allegations against broadcasters and other public figures.
The BBC has never recovered from the scandal over Jimmy Savile. It was one of many institutions that failed to detect the criminal paedophile in its midst, but had a unique opportunity to call out the abuse – which it missed. It is the most painful of counterfactuals: imagine Newsnight had gone ahead with its 2011 film revealing Savile’s crimes, and the BBC had led the way in demolishing the image of this vile man. Instead, the investigation was blocked. The story became one of cover-up at the BBC. I have never believed this was the result of a conspiracy at the top but rather of some frankly stupid editorial decisions – yet it has had a devastating long-term effect.
The first example was Newsnight’s investigation into Lord McAlpine in 2012, shortly after the Savile scandal had been revealed. Was it better for executives to air a report about sexual abuse or to risk accusations of suppressing it? The story went ahead, but it turned out to be untrue. McAlpine pursued legal action and the then director-general, George Entwistle, resigned. In 2014 the BBC sent helicopters to cover a police raid on Cliff Richard’s house – but he never faced charges, and successfully sued the corporation for breach of privacy, costing the corporation millions. Little wonder the BBC has such difficulty calibrating these kinds of stories.
What has made it worse is an approach in some parts of News – notably the website – that prioritises audience reach over the traditionalists’ preference for editorial significance. “Zayn opens up about One Direction split” and “Hugh Grant seen as Oompa Loompa in Wonka trailer” were two recent homepage headlines, just above “South Korea welcomes panda twins”. The corporation is under pressure to remain relevant to everyone as the best defence for public funding, and that means it is tempted to cover stories that get lots of clicks online. The reporting of the Phillip Schofield case showed the BBC at its worst. At one point, the story took precedence on the main news programme over a train crash in India in which nearly 300 people were killed.
As with Schofield, so with Edwards. Viewers of BBC News at Six were required to sit through ten minutes of a story about an initially unnamed individual before being told about Ukraine’s bid for accession at the Nato summit. At times, reporters seemed to be urging police action without considering whether there was evidence for it. BBC journalists should not give their bosses favourable treatment, but it is also vital that they maintain a sense of proportion.
This was apparent on the day Edwards’ identity was disclosed. His wife, Vicky Flind, issued a short statement on 12 July saying that Edwards had suffered an acute mental breakdown and was in hospital. But Newsnight decided that the time was right to disclose that Edwards had sent what it claimed were inappropriate messages to BBC employees – one of whom had experienced a “cold shudder” because of a comment on their appearance.
I would not seek to minimise the experience of those involved, but this is not a main story on a national current affairs programme. Jimmy Savile was a serial rapist, paedophile and necrophiliac; Schofield and Edwards are not. Questionable messages sent by Edwards are something that should have been dealt with through the BBC’s internal complaints process. The idea of separate BBC programmes pursuing this level of complaint against staff on another programme would make the News division ungovernable.
The BBC must decide the extent to which the private lives of famous individuals are matters for its news output. When there is a genuine public interest – as there sometimes will be – it needs to assess fairly the scale of the issue against the rest of the news agenda. The most senior managers should lead, not just because that’s what they’re paid for but because the most disastrous decisions tend to happen at a level below them. Tim Davie likes to talk about “getting a grip” and he will need the tightest of grips if the BBC is to emerge from the Huw Edwards debacle in one piece.
This article appears in the 19 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How Saudi Arabia is buying the world