In a shocking move, the BBC tonight announced that its flagship news TV show, Newsnight, will be suspended from investigations. It also issued an on-air apologyafter mistakenly suggesting a senior politician was a pedophile. It’s a huge deal, and truly shows how the state-funded media company has been devastatingly hit by its own sex scandal. Pretty much everyone now admits that the BBCcompletely failed to handle the Jimmy Savile abuse scandal properly. Savile, a beloved yet quirky TV host who died last year, had long been suspected of inappropriate sexual behavior, even outright child abuse. However, when Newsnight, well known for its in-depth investigation, tried to tackle the allegations after his death, the segment was mysteriously cancelled. When another TV channel broke the story this year, the BBC was unable to explain not only how one of its best-known stars could have committed sexual abuse for decades without any reprimand — but also how the attempts of some of its best journalists to investigate led nowhere. The BBC’s attempts to justify the decision to cancel the segment were extremely unconvincing, and even senior management now admit it looked awful. “There are no short cuts,” BBC Director General George Entwistle told reporters today. “We have to acknowledge responsibility, apologize to victims, commit ourselves to finding out what happened, and cooperate as closely as possible with the police.” Worse still, just as this scandal began to die down, Newsnight embroiled itself in a sexual abuse scandal. Last week Newsnight ran a segment that featured allegations that a well-known Conservative British politician had been a part of notorious pedophile network that operated in Wales in the 1970s. The segment didn’t name the politician — apparently out of legal fears — but the name of the suspect soon spread online. On the surface of it, it looked like Newsnight’s attempt to remind the British public that they were the most important TV news show in the UK — and unafraid to ask serious questions about the British establishment. However, the show set off a storm of speculation that even British Prime Minister David Cameron had to admit verged on a “witch hunt”.
The scandal gained another dimension today when The Guardian announced that the man many had assumed was at the heart of the scandal — former Margaret Thatcher aide Lord (Alistair) McAlpine — was innocent of these and had been the victim of mistaken identity.
Lord McAlpine, who now lives in Italy, has apparently had throngs of reporters outside his villa for weeks, and has been forced to leave his home because of the media frenzy. He has now issued a lengthy statement that goes into some detail in its denial of the accusations, and his lawyer has told the BBC that they are considering legal action against the BBC as well as a number of Twitter users who had named him. The man who accused McAlpine has now apologized for inferring the Lord was involved, and conceded it was a case of mistaken identity.
For the BBC, and Newsnight in particular, this was a big chance at redemption. And, rightly or wrongly, it looks like the show was rushed.
Many on Twitter are wondering if Newsnight — on air since 1980 — can survive. Tonight, after a show that discussed the failures, host Eddie Mair acknowledged the tension with his last line: “Newsnight will be back on Monday. Probably.”
Thus the larger issue is eclipsed by the carelessness of a single TV news show, in the same way that Dan Rather was drummed out of CBS after taking the bait on a bad lead in the GW Bush national guard AWOL scandal.