BBC news scandal: How big of a threat to British journalism?

The BBC's director general has resigned after a two-part scandal at the British Broadcasting Corporation – one of which wrongly implicated a member of Britain's Conservative Party as a child molester.

Alastair Grant/AP
A general view of the BBC headquarters in London, Sunday, Nov. 11.

Disciplinary action is under way today against BBC staff involved in a botched report on its flagship current affairs show as the corporation struggles to get a grip on one of its worst crises and perhaps the greatest challenge to its prestige in its 90-year history.

The scandal, which led to the resignation of the new BBC director general on Saturday after just 54 days on the job, and which may yet result in the departure of the chairman of the independent trust that governs the news organization, centers on two separate items prepared for the “Newsnight” current affairs TV program.

One, broadcast on Nov. 2, wrongly alleged that a senior conservative politician from Margaret Thatcher’s administration sexually abused boys. That error was grave enough in itself, but the damage to the BBC was exacerbated by the fact that it was already facing questions about why it had shelved a "Newsnight" investigation into sex abuse allegations against one of its biggest stars, the late Jimmy Savile.

Amid widespread fallout from the controversy, many fear that Britain’s public broadcaster’s tradition of independence is under threat and that commercial competitors and political critics could use the opportunity to lobby for change. Conservative members of Parliament are already using the crisis to bolster arguments against the license fee, which is levied on television set owners as a means of subsidizing the BBC. However, others are concerned that the public service broadcaster’s world-class investigative journalism could somehow be reined in or compromised. 

“There is so much pressure on commercial media at the moment that it's vital that the BBC keeps its place in British national life – not just as the dominant news source, but one that is a high-quality news source,” says Charlie Beckett, a former senior BBC producer who is the director of POLIS, a think tank at the London School of Economics for research and debate into international journalism and society.

“Part of that function is taking risks and being prepared to challenge authority and go against the consensus view sometimes. If the BBC loses confidence because of this kind of mistake and the lack of leadership then it might not deliver that essential public service.”

The scale of the failings of "Newsnight" have come under wider scrutiny following the release Monday of more details from an internal BBC investigation into the Nov. 2 broadcast. The investigation found that "some of the basic journalistic checks were not completed."

Among other failings, the report found that although he wasn’t named in the program, the former Conservative Party figure who was implicated in the child abuse story was not contacted for comment or offered the opportunity to reply to the allegations – standard ethical practice in journalism.

However, veteran investigative journalist David Leigh, who was involved in a front-page newspaper story that suggested the politician implicated by "Newsnight" might be the victim of "mistaken identity," insisted that it was “nonsense” for some to predict a collapse of journalistic investigations in Britain.

Writing in the Guardian, Mr. Leigh said that “while 'Newsnight' stumbles,” a sister BBC investigative program was carrying on with “tough, apparently well-resourced investigations, often venturing into tricky undercover territory.”

Leigh claimed though that there is a “genuine underlying problem” revolving around how wider investigative journalism could be subsidized as conventional media business models were “swept away by the Internet.”

Alongside the BBC, another casualty of the crisis has been the reputation of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BiJ), a nonprofit foundation similar to America’s ProPublica. The head of the bureau, which worked with "Newsnight" on its ill-fated broadcast, has resigned.

It would be a shame, wrote Leigh, if the efforts of the BiJ “are swept away in the political hysteria.”

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