Saturday, 3 November 2012

On the BBC, Savile and Listening to the Victims

I've been avoiding commenting on this topic for any number of reasons, not least of which that my thoughts can have little to add, and can do nothing to help the people who were victims, not merely of Savile, but more broadly within a culture we are learning more about by the day. After last night's notable Non-naming on Newsnight, and J. Dimbleby's comments however, I felt compelled to try to find some kind of balanced perspective on all of this.

First, on the real issue I have remarkably little to say. I was born in the 80s, I didn't watch the show, I never knew much about Savile beyond the ubiquitous pop cultural references (most recently entering into series one of Sherlock in relation to 'Jim' Moriarty, the reimagined consultant criminal). I certainly am not well equipped to speak to the culture at the time, nor to the many investigations started, stopped, hushed and never begun at all. The more we learn, the more unimaginable and horrific it seems.

The past is a strange and alien place, and all-too-distant. For a long time, when I was younger, I might have known the facts regarding racial segregation in the US, for example, but it was only as an adult I fully realised and understood how recent it was, how close at hand. There were many such discoveries, and they helped to colour my perception of the quantum jump that comes with a generational shift of values and perspectives, and to better begin to see the connections and traces that remained within modern, more oblique and complex forms of discrimination.

Recent like-for-like polling has shown reductions in trust for the BBC, as well as reductions in scores for whether or not "the BBC is an institution we should be proud of". This seems to be absolutely normal at the moment, my twitter feed is often littered with comments about 'the BBC', as if it were simply a monolith. The BBC has many disaggregated parts, and how they relate, one to another, is far from clear or consistent at the best of times. Certainly, most of those who work there now were not present at the time in question, most were not involved in the aborted Newsnight investigation, and whatever their normal virtues or failings, most are still doing their jobs just as they were a month or so ago.

I'm not absolving the BBC of guilt. It seems undeniable now that investigations are decades too late, not merely months. Whatever happened in those dressing rooms, whatever rumours were or were not flying about, they should have been investigated, if only to ensure that there was no truth in them and to satisfy those involved that they had not turned a blind eye to something terrifying.

But to those who say "the victims' testimony should be enough", that is too broad a statement to make. Over time, given allegations, a full and proper investigation should be conducted, whether it is appropriate for that to be internal or via reference to the police. The BBC does however have an obligation not to simply take any allegation and publish it without full access to the facts, simply because as a powerful national broadcaster, much of what it airs will have effect irrespective as to denials or refutations subsequently offered, be they true or not. False accusations are at times made, and they can be very damaging. This does not lessen the pain of victims, nor reduce the damage done by questioning their motives, but it is a requirement both necessary and right of justice, that we prove guilt, and not merely assume it.

Bear in mind, newspapers have falsely accused, attacked and destroyed innocent people in the past, and been made to pay in the courts, quite correctly, as a result.

If the BBC had enough information and failed to speak, that would speak to a serious failure by those concerned, be it a Newsnight editor, and / or someone further up, or down the chain. If they spoke without adequate evidence, it would be equally troublesome. Imagine what would happen if the BBC stated a specific, named senior politician had been part of a paedophilia ring, and not only was it not substantiated, but it was later disproven. In retrospect, doubtless many would blame the BBC for reckless opportunism in translating an allegation into a headline.

Victims must be heard, they must be helped, and we must pursue those who abused their power, abused the trust invested in them and who were civilised by their ability to control their public face. The police in particular should follow every available lead wherever it takes them. But we should always be wary. It is altogether too easy for us to refresh old crimes, because the grief of discovery is felt keenly now, not decades ago. But those things did not happen yesterday, and in so far as such things still happen, it is in a very different context, and we can only strive to change that climate still further in days to come.

The exposure of criminality and evil does not taint a society, it should not make it feel darker and more oppressive. It is the very opposite, the concealment of criminality, that achieves those ends. If in the end individuals within the BBC, now or in the past, helped to conceal these things, then by due process they should be dealt with. If, on the other hand, they were not able in the space of a day to satisfy themselves that it was responsible to run a story, or at least to name names, we should at least wait another day before rushing to judgment.

And we should try to bear in mind that 'the BBC' covers an extremely large body of people, many of whom are not even remotely involved in any of this and could never have been, and without making claims for their honour, at the very least many will be disturbed and saddened to know that 'the BBC', of which they are a part, could lose the confidence of the public so readily. It might be better, instead, to criticise individuals, specific cultures, institutions, structures and decisions. In this area, you can find countless faults with the BBC, as indeed you could with many large organisations. In doing so we can improve it, instead of merely disapproving of it.

 This should not be the age in which we lose faith in our public institutions, it is instead an opportunity to remedy their failings and renew ourselves.