I’m looking at you, the British media. Now pull your socks up.
Several Saturdays ago, as I sat down to edit issue 167 of The Saint, the twittersphere began to buzz with rumours that George Entwhistle, then Director General of the BBC, was planning to resign. At 9pm, Entwhistle, accompanied by Chris Patten, Chairman of the BBC Trust, appeared before a media scrum. The 53 days of his imperfect tenure were etched across his ashen face and his speech possessed an eerie dreamlike lucidity. He was not so much awaiting the judge’s verdict, but rather feeling the coarse noose tighten around his neck. As he gazed heavenwards, the irony of the blue halo that emits from the top of New Broadcasting House was lost on no-one; after a month of calamitous cover-ups and incomprehensible incompetence, the blue haze now hung like a dismal pall over the organisation. “This is undoubtedly one of the saddest evenings of my public life,” Patten spat. Quiet indignant fury sharpened the corners of his flabby face. A smatter of applause broke out as Entwhistle trudged off, and that was it. 53 days on the job and it was over almost as quickly as it had begun, one of the shortest tenures the BBC has known.
And as the curtain fell on the disgraced DG who once proclaimed he was “the right man for the job”, a carnival atmosphere of questioning and witch-hunting broke out: was Entwhistle incompetent? Was the BBC’s undoing a result of the dizzying and self-inflicted red tape? Can the BBC survive? Can we ever trust the BBC again? Can we ever trust journalists again? Doom-saying tabloids called for the heads of Newsnight and other top-end staff, while Roger Mosey, Director of Television at the Beeb, rode to the defence of the organisation. Writing in the News Statesman, Mosey asserted: “As a journalistic culture, we should apply ourselves to the difference between what’s serious wrongdoing in the sense of being criminal or wicked – and what’s just a “good” story with fallible human beings at the centre of it.”
But that’s precisely the point: impugning on Lord McAlpine’s reputation by falsely claiming he was a paedophile is serious wrongdoing. Failing to give him a right to reply (which would have coincidentally stopped the story in its tracks) is serious wrongdoing. Pulling an investigation into Jimmy Saville for fear it may conflict with mawkish and toadying Christmas tributes to the same man who terrified and abused young children is serious wrongdoing. George Entwhistle’s laidback approach to damning allegations against a Tory peer about which he knew so bafflingly little is serious wrongdoing. The list goes on and on. Investigations into both the McAlpine and Saville affairs, you can’t help but feel, will uncover deeper frailties within the Beeb. The flurry of resignations over the last month has stuck a knife into the heart of the BBC. The next few months will see how far it can be twisted.
And as I sat there on that Saturday evening, editing The Saint, reflecting on the whole debacle, it wasn’t wide-eyed disbelief with which I greeted the affair, but choler, pure and unparalleled. Newsnight has enjoyed somewhat of an apotheosis in recent years: a clutch of Royal Television Society awards cluttered the office and the eyes of thousands of student hacks gazed adoringly upwards at these stalwarts of British journalism. Yet the veneer of respectability and honest, hardworking journalism has been denuded. When Eddie Mair signed off an edition of Newsnight a few Fridays ago with the words, “See you on Monday, maybe,” nobody was laughing. The BBC, Newsnight, Phillip Schofield on This Morning, the News of the World and all the other dastardly news outlets that have sullied the name of journalism, are now little more than empty shells, without credibility or the trust of their public. More importantly, they’ve lost the respect of their successors. Those who once had their sights set on the upper echelons of the media now see the business as a corrupt, uncontrolled beast where rogue reporters are welcomed, corners are cut and unverified facts are broadcast. And it’s all happening with such a frenetic zeal that there seems no end in sight. This rotten core of British journalism is a poisoned chalice, ready to be bequeathed to my generation. I think I speak for all student hacks when I say that it’s a business we don’t want to inherit. Consider this then a warning to the British media: it’s you who sets the example, now give us one that’s worthy of following.
Photo credit: Simon Johnston