Poppy Sebag-Montefiore on the story of Liz MacKean and Meirion Jones, the first journalists to find people willing to testify that Jimmy Savile had abused them. Their story was ultimately canned by the BBC’s Newsnight programme, setting off an explosive series of events as the organisation struggled come to terms with how to investigate itself and its past.
This piece is less about the crimes committed—although they are of course referenced—and far more about how such an enormous broadcaster can or cannot have the required independence and oversight for such a complex investigation.
My perhaps naive sense is that the corporation has changed immeasurably since the time of Savile’s evil crimes, but that it has also made further essential improvements in the decade since MacKean and Jones’ awful treatment. The majority of my dalliances with the BBC in that period have been through freelance production companies, but I’ve been to Broadcasting House a few times over the years and have friends who work there in varying capacities. Aside from the initial thrill of literally bumping into famous presenters in the foyer as they pop outside for a cigarette, my overall impression is of how enormous everything is—the building, obviously, but also the number of staff, departments, committees, reporting lines, and unbelievably tiny ‘meeting rooms’ that you can book for multiples of 5 minutes.
Extremely large organisations are inherently slow to move and there is clear evidence that this can have tragic consequences. I’m latterly persuaded that while the BBC can never be nimble enough to be a true trailblazer, it is at least attempting to evolve itself while trying to keep the UK’s inept government at arm’s length.
And that’s not irrelevant. I am aware of my prejudices and that my views may be clouded by my belief that the BBC should be supported at all costs. Hell, put me in charge and the license fee’s doubling, lads. I agree with Tom Mills
that for a society to function democratically in any meaningful sense, citizens require accurate and impartial sources of information to inform their political judgements, or better still a public space to facilitate political deliberation, free from market forces and the state. The BBC provides this in ways no other broadcaster or content streaming service can and that the Tories will never understand.