Tragedies of the fourth estate

The recent crises must be understood in light of systemic pressures on the BBC's resources and the wider struggle to maintain  healthy and well funded investigative journalism - an essential part of democratic accountability.

Paul Lashmar
20 November 2012

If prophecy can be added to the theatrical tropes of the BBC debacle, I predict it will not be long before the whole sad episode is turned into a major dramatic production. Indeed, the similarities are striking between the BBC scandal and the oldest of all surviving plays, Aeschylus’ tragedy “The Persians”: the bowed empire, the defeated leader, sinister politics, a scapegoat, the hubris, betrayal, incompetence, and recriminations are all there. There’s the chorus of wailing newspaper editors and MPs, many enjoying the disgrace of the BBC enemy. The stench of neo-liberal carnivores, like vultures gathering in a tree near the scene of death, hangs over the scene like the smell of rotting meat.

Real career changing drama has been played out at the BBC. Those of us close to the BBC network hear of confrontations, most vividly in the middle of a crowded BBC office where a damaged senior editorial executive labelled a producer a ‘despicable human being’ for his part of the whole messy affair.

In this dark psychodrama there are also elements of Homeric comedy. The Director-General George Entwistle’s repeated bumbling performances in the face of skilled interrogators could only be played on stage by Martin Clunes. Entwistle, a BBC smooth operator, was manifestly not ready for the move from behind the cameras to the front. The emperor had no clothes.

“I don’t buy the ‘oh poor George’ line,” said one former BBC executive, “he was always a trapped bureaucrat and parent of much of the new bureaucracy in BBC television.” Like King Darius, he had left his generals to fight his battles while he had better things to do. Newsnight was to be his Marathon. The Homeric third person narrator of this tragedy can be played, as in real life, by the Media Show’s Steve Hewlett.

Reduced to its essentials for the stage, the first act of this modern tragedy starts on 30th November 2011. This was the day that Newsnight editor Peter Rippon suddenly and unexpectedly raised the bar for the team working on the investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile. “Until the 30th it was full speed ahead for broadcast. The impact team was ready to promote the programme. Then it was dead in the water,” one insider told me.

Rippon raised the evidential bar so high it was not possible for even the first rate investigation team to jump.

What was going on in Peter Rippon’s mind? By that point he must have been aware of the potential embarrassment for the BBC if Newsnight accused the late Savile of being a paedophile just as the BBC entertainment launched a hagiographic “Savile Christmas” of tributes. Was it anticipatory compliance where Rippon intuited what he thought his bosses would want? One insider says they think Rippon picked up on a passing comment by head of News, Helen Boaden, saw it as straw in the wind and decided to kill the investigation. We may never know the answer to this question. The Newsnight editor did not help himself with his blog which inaccurately recorded that the story was about the police investigation into Savile, not the actual Savile allegations. He looked like a man distancing himself from his own decision. One of the lessons to come out of this sorry affair is that the considered nature of investigative journalism and off the cuff casualness of social media are poor bedfellows.

Many years ago I worked in the BBC Newsnight office for a short while. It was the epitome of the BBC at its best – a well-staffed team, a lot of experience, a culture of inquiring journalism and inspirational leadership. Over more recent years my contacts have portrayed a programme in decline, moving under Rippon’s leadership to chat and away from hard hitting journalism. Newsnight was also hamstrung by cuts. Under relentless government pressure the BBC produced the Orwellian euphemism ‘Delivering Quality [email protected] (DQF)’ programme, which aims to cut the overall budget by 20 per cent and would see the loss of 2,000 jobs.

The NUJ’s Michelle Stanistreet said a week ago: “Even flagship programmes have not been ringfenced - at Newsnight, for example, the budget in real terms has halved over the past five years and the number of reporters and senior journalists has been cut relentlessly. These are simple facts,” she added. “With fewer journalists, many employed on a casual basis, it means there is no time for that extra telephone call, no time to double-check the facts, no time to reflect properly before a programme goes out."

A message of Aeschylus’ play is the victory of the values of free men and democracy over despotism. At that point the BBC scandal takes leave of Aeschylus’ template with a postmodern tragic motif. Anyone in, or formerly of, the public sector might have sympathy for the unfurling BBC tragedy as the recipe and ingredients will be familiar. First enforce the decimation of staff numbers in an organisation so that it can no longer function. Lambast and demoralise the surviving staff. Exile half of those who remain. Eliminate expertise. When it all goes predictably goes wrong, shout “told you so” and claim it demonstrates that the public service ethos has no place in a market economy. It has happened to social workers, care workers, doctors, nurses, teachers and lecturers. Now it is the turn of the BBC. The answer, we are repeatedly told, is private companies, lower pay and short term contracts.

Investigative Journalism

In a recent cinematic portrayal of a British investigative journalist, in director Paul Greengrass’ The Bourne Ultimatum, the probing reporter is peremptorily assassinated by a CIA hit man before he gets the story. He doesn’t even get time to be heroic as he is impetuous and throws caution to the wind. It’s a prescient metaphor for the current state of investigative journalism in Britain. 

Back in 2009 I wrote a paper on the crisis in investigative journalism and identified what I called the ‘BBC paradox’. At that point it looked like the remnants of UK’s decimated investigative journalism were consolidating, Masada-like, at the BBC redoubt.  I argued that while the BBC produces excellent investigative journalism, the licence fee left it vulnerable to political attack when it came to very difficult investigations.

“However the expectation for any home for investigative journalism is that it will not shirk the fourth estate role, for which the credibility of all journalism rests”, I postulated. 

To challenge the State and by definition the Government of the day journalism must be robust and independent. The BBC might have a theoretical independence through the Trust but is funded by the licence fee and its existence and charter is legislated by the Government. Historically there have been many occasions, especially before 1970, when the BBC have been far too close to the Government.  But there has also been a long history of confrontation between Government and the BBC. The Real Lives episode and The Zircon affair of the 1980s were high profile examples.

Then the most high profile and recent confrontation was to lead to the Hutton Inquiry. The Hutton inquiry had a long term impact on the BBC. Through the late noughties BBC editors maintained that they would investigate wrongdoing at the highest levels without fear or favour, the author’s conversations with experienced BBC journalists suggest a more varied landscape, and no small hint at self-censorship. These winds blew through Newsnight too.

I said in the 2009 paper, “Since Hutton the BBC has not gone head to head with the government over an investigation and until it does we will not be able to judge the BBC’s mettle.”

Also in January 2009 I was part of a group of investigative journalists who met in a Soho pub to discuss ‘What is to be done?’ about the perceived perilous state of investigative journalism.  There was profound concern that the traditional media either no longer has, or wishes to employ, the resources to maintain a sustainable level of investigative journalism. The Iraq War and the Credit Crunch had revealed the desperate need for better in-depth investigative reporting.

The ad hoc group examined the US experience where long standing non-profit organisations like the Center for Public Integrity and the Centre for Investigative Journalism have used the combined foundation and donation funding model. One attractive model was ProPublica which employs a substantial number of experienced journalists funded by a wealthy philanthropist but how to raise the money? Two public-spirited people, the former Sunday Times writer Elaine Potter and her husband David, the developer of the Psion computer, hove into view and put £2m of seed money from their charitable foundation into the project. The Bureau for Investigative Journalism was born.

These two issues have now come together in a car crash. The BBC is in the dock firstly for not publishing and secondly for publishing. In both cases the BBC have serious questions to answer.

The real victims of this story though appear quite late on. These are ‘the powerless’ - the handful of women who were brave enough to appear on the ITV programme and relate the abuse they suffered at the hands of Savile and his predatory friends. It is worth recalling that at this point Savile was still a god on the Mount Olympus of light entertainment. These women’s stories were powerful and about power – no one had wanted to believe them because everyone else wanted to believe in Jimmy Savile. We are left to consider their words of how Savile’s abuse has damaged their lives and no one, frankly, cared. So ends act one.

We now come to act two. This is played out against a background of major inquiries into why the Savile Newsnight was still-born, how Savile was able to abuse on BBC premises and a rapidly escalating police investigation into a torrent of allegations. The stage set is of the sombre Newsnight office in early autumn. With Rippon on gardening leave Newsnight is in the hands of acting editor Liz Gibbons. Enter stage left, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism where former long-time BBC journalist Angus Stickler now worked. He is asked by the BBC to return to his old hunting ground of the decades-old child abuse allegations in North Wales, after allegations of a cover up were raised in Parliament. All concerned believed that they knew the identity of a senior Thatcher period Tory they believed to be involved. At this point there was little investigative expertise left in Newsnight. The Savile team had split, disbursed to other programmes. Producer Meirion Jones was now over in Panorama. A BBC producer was assigned to the story as the rules rightly require.

Iain Overton, the Editor of the Bureau then enters the story. As with Rippon it is impossible to know what was going on in Iain Overton’s mind when he tweeted, in advance of transmission of the item, that they were going to "out" a "very senior politician who is a paedophile"  As an investigative journalist I have an uncomfortable relation with Twitter, I am only too aware of its instant Siren attraction, luring distracted journalists on the rocks of defamation.

The item goes out without naming the Tory. A flurry of social media activity and the name Lord McAlpine emerges. It turns out that they did not put the allegations to Lord McAlpine, a baffling error of judgement. After transmission the sole witness realised he had made a terrible error and had identified the wrong man. One of the questions has been did they put this to the BBC lawyers and Editorial Policy (Ed Pol)? Insiders tell me they did but the internal inquiry will reveal that the questions that resulted were too specific and missed the flawed bigger picture. How anyone could rush into the evidential nightmare of the child abuse allegation in care homes from twenty years ago is a mystery. There is a whole complex history that would have taken weeks to plough through.

So who to blame for the mess? One source said: “I don’t blame Liz Gibbons, she was trying to do three people’s jobs. I blame the lack of managerial support for her that left her in that position.”

Here the script does turn bizarre in part. The Sun probably could not believe their luck when they tracked down the Newsnight producer who had handled the McAlpine story. He was a freelancer who had recently taken a year off to try to be a stand-up comic. Cue picture of producer looking entirely ridiculous. Not helpful.

At its best investigative journalism is a powerful force for good. It has brought down a US President and seriously damaged Murdoch’s corrupted News Corp. When it goes wrong it can be disastrous. Wherever I have worked I have always had access to the head of that news organisation with only one layer of management in between. I also always had very experienced editors who had experience of difficult investigations. When the Savile investigation was dropped by Rippon the investigation team tried to send the message up the BBC’s deep hierarchy that this decision was potentially disastrous to the BBC’s reputation. The message never made landfall and is presumably still floating in a bottle on the sea of bureaucracy. “Killing the Savile investigation was always going to get out sooner or later and be seen as a cover-up,” said one source. “It was just a question of when.”

The failure of the BBC management is jaw dropping. I cannot believe that George Entwistle did not have a mechanism in place to warn him of upcoming problems. Entwistle said at one point he did not know about the Newsnight programme because he was working on a speech. “Do you know what that speech was? One insider asked. “It was: BBC Priorities for 2013. Sorry, George, you should have been thinking about the BBC priorities for the day.”

With regard to the bigger political picture, I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist but I do believe that there was a conspiracy that put in train the events that led to the BBC calamity. I believe that that it was well understood by the incoming Conservatives in the coalition that their job was to emasculate the BBC. The quid pro quo for the support of Rupert Murdoch was to allow Sky to capture traditional BBC territory. There may be have been nothing said but again anticipatory compliance comes into play. And a bloody good job the current government has made of bringing the BBC to its knees. The deep irony is that the cuts were launched before the Murdoch empire was beset by the humiliation of phone hacking. Suddenly the BBC looked like a bastion of good practice in comparison to elements of the press. It doesn’t anymore.

That brings us to the role of newspapers in this tragedy.  The strength of the fourth estate concept is built of heterogeneity of the news media. The BBC exercises oversight on the press and the press exercise oversight on the BBC. The incompetence of BBC management is a story that had to be told. But you cannot help notice the relish which some news organisation have kicked the writhing body of the BBC. The Mail, who was never far behind Murdoch in the BBC hating stakes, has moved to pole position. Their motives are not obviously market driven as with News International but there are politics. Phone hacking has, unfortunately, torn away the last fig leaf from the statue of press self-regulation, which has fallen from its pedestal. Proponents of state regulation have pointed to the broadcast model as an example of how well it can function. The squeal of glee from the press is painful to behold as the BBC managed serial cock ups despite having a tome of editorial guidelines the size of a King James Bible and theoretically a fool-proof compliance system.

I do not like to see failed investigative journalism as it casts a shadow and acts as a disincentive to other news media. On a positive note, investigative journalists have a habit of popping up to expose the failings of colleagues in other news organisations. It was Nick Davies at the Guardian who doggedly revealed the phone hacking. Andrew Jennings has exposed the myopia of sports journalism in failing to cover corruption of FIFA – not least at the BBC. Similarly ITV, who had been largely out of the investigative journalism stakes, suddenly appeared with a programme that did what Newsnight had not done – expose the despicable side of Jimmy Savile’s career.  When the Newsnight team were stood down by Peter Rippon they thought about 100 people would eventually come forward alleging Savile’s abuse. The film about Savile was only shown a few weeks ago but some 450 people have now come forward.

Aeschylus play was written for people to celebrate a victory, but for an audience who were only too aware of the dark and powerful non-democratic forces still at work in the world. Today we have no victory only calamities and we too feel the presence of dark forces. We cannot now even hide in nostalgia of the recent past. Savile will change the perceived history of the swinging sixties for the historic record. Like the Donald Cammell and Nic Roeg’s1968 film ‘Performance’, the plot will be how the optimism of the decade collided with transgression and deviance engendered by the repressed past. Aeschylus recognised that it was all about power, the gaining and losing of power. In his perverse way Savile recognised that too – to put yourself in such a position of power than no one dare question what you do.

What will come of the BBC I do not know but I leave the last words to Aeschylus:

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” 


Lashmar, P. (2009) 'Investigative Journalism: a case for intensive care?' delivered at the 'Journalism in Crisis' conference.  University of Westminster in association with the British Journalism Review
London, May 2009 


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