Crisis over Newsnight's blunders doesn't mean the BBC is 'toast'
Is the entire BBC in meltdown, asks Bill Martin, or are we getting a case of some extremely dodgy journalism at Newsnight just a little bit out of proportion?
Tomorrow morning I and a few thousand other die-hards will set the alarm for 3.30am ready to tune into to live ball by ball coverage of England's first test match in India. A little later (hopefully) children will appear ready for school and watch CBBC. In the kitchen the radio will be tuned to Chris Evans on Radio 2. Later in the morning if I'm in my car I shall try and catch Ken Bruce's Popmaster pop quiz, and whatever time I finish work I shall probably watch Eastenders and will definitely catch the news, both local and national.
Being Thursday I'll probably watch Question Time. Throughout the day, I will check the latest BBC news headlines on the internet on my phone, and BBC rolling news will be on continuously in my office. I shall probably be party to, or overhear, at least one conversation about BBC's Saturday night super-programme Strictly Come Dancing.
Aside from the cricket, that's a pretty normal day, not just for me, but for millions of Britons, and it just goes to show how pervasive the BBC is in all of our lives.
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But in case you missed it, the BBC is in crisis. In fact, it is not just in crisis, it is in its "most serious crisis" since its first broadcast on this day in 1922 when it began, in the words of the BBC mantra formulated by its founding father, John Reith, to "inform, educate, and entertain".
According to its own reports, the corporation is in meltdown following Newsnight's un-corroborated smearing of Lord McAlpine, the subsequent resignation of director general George Entwhistle at the weekend, and the "stepping aside" of the BBC's director of news, Helen Boaden, and her deputy, Stephen Mitchell.
The airwaves have been crammed with experts calling for the resignation of BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten, and there has been speculation that Newsnight itself, one of the Beeb's great flagship news and analysis programmes, will be "axed". Phone-ins and web forums have been inundated with callers and contributors outraged by Entwistle's £450,000 pay-off, and the corporation is in crisis – fearing it has lost the trust of the British public.
But has it? There's no doubt, the Beeb has taken a hit. The Newsnight programme was an astonishingly amateurish piece of journalism that would shame any newsroom. Basic checks were not carried out and the result was a defamation of the very worst kind of a senior Tory grandee. A reporter, news editor and editor in a regional newspaper newsroom would be very lucky to survive negligence of anything near the scale shown in this case.
Following on the from the Jimmy Savile fiasco, the disaster has seen the BBC go into an almost incessant cycle of self-analysis and criticism accompanied by some very public soul-searching and pretty pointless beating of breasts.
Senior BBC news correspondents have been grilling senior news management over what went wrong, respected commentators have been discussing the "tragedy" that has befallen the BBC, and its staff, we are told, are suffering from anxiety, fear, and trauma.
The irony in all of it is that the crisis has seen the BBC at its very, very, worst, but also at its very best.
There are few organisations in the world that would have the brass to set one of its most feared interviewers, John Humphrys, loose on its most senior, and clearly struggling, executive. In fact Humphrys' dissection of George Entwistle on Radio Four's rightly respected Today programme probably did for the director general.
If you missed that try Nicky Campbell's Radio Five Live phone-in show, which was inundated with callers baying for more blood-letting, for the scrapping of the license fee, and in general for the end of the Beeb as we know it. It was compelling and confrontational debate. What must Sir Bruce, Sir Terry, and dear old Aggers have thought?
But the excellence of that journalism is now in danger of being shrouded in the BBC's almost narcissistic obsession with itself, and public reactions to that have been revealing. A caller on Nicky Campbell's show on Monday referred to the story of Boaden and Mitchell as a "statement about people we've never heard of, stepping aside, and being replaced by people we've never heard of". The caller added "we just don't care".
It is clear that there is general public frustration with the myriad layers of management, the confusing job titles, and the lack of responsibility revealed by both the Newsnight and the Jimmy Savile fiascos. And it's clear that the public wants its BBC back, a BBC built on editorial values based on truth, fairness and objectivity, with news teams that set the national agenda, and producers and entertainers able to make fabulous TV drama, and high quality radio.
In reality, that BBC is still there, and the appalling failings of one news and analysis show should not be taken out of context.
And even more importantly, the "meltdown" inside the BBC should not detract attention from the issues around the stories around which this whole shambles began to unravel, the sex abuse allegations around Sir Jimmy Savile, and one of the worst cases of child abuse ever uncovered in Britain.