The tenor of current accusations, built on a febrile atmosphere of rumour and suspicion, seems to preclude any reasoned debate over what we want from a public broadcaster. We’ve seen similar panics around the BBC before, most recently after Jonathan Ross’s prank call to Andrew Sachs in 2008. This has invariably led to more of the kind of risk-averse compliance regulation and bureaucratic interference that is so poisonous to serious journalism. If every questionable editorial decision will be treated as a conspiracy, rather than failure, no one will benefit. Hard cases make bad law, as the saying goes. There is a profound risk that, unless the rest of the media are willing to take a step back and offer a dispassionate and critical perspective, the extraordinary case of Jimmy Savile could easily follow the Leveson Inquiry in creating a chilling atmosphere for our free press.
David Bowden works at the Institute of Ideas.
The Savile scandal is an ugly reminder that a news organisation given near-monopoly status cannot fulfil its duty to the public to expose wrongdoing. If any private business had acted as the BBC has, it would collapse. Customers would boycott it and its rivals would gleefully expose its failings. But the BBC is protected from accountability by its licence fee subsidy, thanks to which it is a near-monopoly, with a 70 per cent share of the TV news market. Its nearest rival ITV has a mere 18 per cent share. We shouldn’t be surprised that the BBC has been so bad at exposing the scandal within – it has no need to be accountable to its viewers, so it can get away with covering up its misdeeds. The News of the World was scrapped after its employees’ crimes came to light. That won’t happen to the BBC. It’s time for real accountability to be imposed – but for that to happen, the license fee has to go.
Sam Bowman is policy director at the Adam Smith Institute.