Dark side of a public broadcaster
MYANMAR’S Aung San Suu Kyi has lately been pictured in the company of Barack Obama, but on her first trip abroad in more than two decades one of her ports of call in London was Broadcasting House, where former BBC disc jockey Dave Lee Travis was photographed planting a kiss on her hand.
DLT, as he is popularly known, was a Suu Kyi favourite in his capacity as a presenter of the BBC World Service’s music request programme ‘A Jolly Good Show’. The World Service served as a lifeline during her long years of incarceration, and she justifiably lamented the fact that its entertainment component had lately been depleted, replaced mostly with rolling news broadcasts.
Chances are she must have been appalled by reports last week that Travis was briefly taken into custody by detectives associated with Operation Yewtree, an investigation into allegations of serial sexual abuse by another long-time BBC presenter, Jimmy Savile.
Whatever allegations there may be against Travis have not been made public, and DLT has been at pains to point out that he has not been accused of the “bloody evil” of child molestation.
The BBC has lately been embroiled in a great deal of turmoil on related issues. Late last year, an investigative report on the charges against Savile was nixed by Newsnight, its primary television channel’s flagship current affairs show. One of the reasons, it has been suggested, is that the damning evidence against him would have clashed with programmes planned as tributes after the weirdo, revered as something of a national institution, carked it in October 2011.
More recently, an at least equally grievous error led Newsnight to air false allegations against a senior Tory who had been part of the Thatcher administration. The BBC did not name the man, but it was common knowledge the reference was to Lord McAlpine — in, as it turns out, a case of mistaken identity that had already been flagged in press reports.
This appalling lapse may have been propelled in part by the flak directed at the BBC for its failure over the Savile report (which eventually ran on the rival commercial channel, ITV). Heads have rolled, including that of director general George Entwistle, who had been in office for less than two months. It is notable, though, that Entwistle deemed it appropriate to resign after an on-air interrogation by the BBC’s John Humphrys.
The BBC’s Nick Robinson points out, meanwhile, that the current crisis is by no means the worst that the institution has faced. “In 1926,” he writes, “when [Britain] was riven by the General Strike, [Winston] Churchill wanted to take over the BBC as an instrument of propaganda. Anthony Eden’s government drew up plans to take over the corporation during the Suez crisis of 1956.
“Margaret Thatcher’s clashes with the BBC over the Falklands war and coverage of the [Irish Republican Army] led to the removal of a DG [director general]. Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell’s legal war over the sexed-up Iraq dossier and those missing weapons of mass destruction felled both the DG and the chairman.”
The fuss over the Falklands, if memory serves, was driven by the BBC’s decision to broadcast a clip of Argentinean war footage. It was, at best, a perfunctory attempt at a semblance of ‘balance’, but it sufficed to rile up the Tories. The sexed-up dossier was hardly the figment of a BBC reporter’s imagination, but the Blair administration, too, was determined to uphold its lies.
Complex rules were thereafter put in place to curb the independence of reporters and producers. More recently, austerity measures have taken their toll — and it has been suggested that depleted resources are partially responsible for the reduced efficacy of investigative reporting.
BBC employees generally bristle, with some justification, at any description of the corporation as a state broadcaster. Its reputation for independence, after all, is crucial to its image. Yet it’s easy to exaggerate. The World Service that served as a window to the world to Suu Kyi — and millions of others — was, after all, once known as the Empire Service, and funded by the Foreign Office.
Its merits should not be discounted, but nor should its role as an instrument of propaganda in the Cold War go unacknowledged — although it was never as crass as Radio Moscow or the Voice of America.
And the broadcaster’s status as a part of the establishment was underlined just a few months ago when it apologised profusely to the British Queen for a reporter’s indiscretion in airing Her Majesty’s views on the extremist Muslim cleric Abu Hamza.
In what is supposedly a democracy, revealing the ceremonial head of state’s opinions is considered lese-majesty, and the BBC is happy to go along with this travesty.
At the same time, it faces highly dubious charges of liberal bias. Just a couple of days ago, a retrograde priest by the name of Peter Mullen accused it of being a “pro-Palestinian propaganda machine” in the context of the latest assault on Gaza. If anything, it could safely be claimed that most mainstream Western outlets, including the BBC, tend to be too indulgent towards Israeli propaganda.
It’s all too easy, though, to lose sight of questions that the BBC must answer: chiefly why a monster of depravity such as Jimmy Savile — whose nefarious inclinations were apparently no secret among colleagues and associates — was able for so long to carry on victimising children as a sexual predator in the corporation’s studios.
His obscene behaviour was repeated elsewhere, in schools and hospitals. Appallingly, his proclivities were common knowledge there, too.
The recent arrest of a retired Church of England bishop serves as a reminder that paedophilia is not just a problem for the Catholic church, and allegations against the late Liberal MP Cyril Smith suggest politicians, too, were quite capable of abusing their celebrity status.
Nor is it exclusively a Christian dilemma: there is no dearth of anecdotal evidence against clerics of other faiths, not least mullahs, and religion’s role in predatory attitudes towards children and women remains under-investigated.
Yet there is something particularly stomach-churning about the idea of a ‘paedophile ring’ based at the BBC. It may prove impossible to wash off or wish away the indelible stain, but a full exposure may help to ensure it can never recur.