Ranjona Banerji: The Big, Bad World of the BBC

14 Nov,2012

By Ranjona Banerji

 

The day when you know that there are going to be the no newspapers the next day, you start hoarding them. You don’t read all of them – if you take more than one – or you don’t read all of it. You save up some for the next day, which will start without one vital component. And that is how you discover how old you are really. Not one of those who wakes up in the morning and checks whatever treats all the apps on their smartphone has ready for them. I just realised for instance that my version of Microsoft Word is so old that it does not recognise smartphone as one word.

 

Tomorrow, Thursday November 15, is a no edition day in Mumbai.

 

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While Indian television news has been a mix of Diwali cheer, entertainment guff and the customary studio fireworks over some “question of the day”, the big story for the media has been the scandal over at the BBC. The venerable broadcaster is accused of covering a sex scandal by a star TV personality in the 1970s and ’80s, Jimmy Savile. Alllegations of child sexual accused against Savile who died last year include creating shows only so he could have access to children. Some in the BBC’s management apparently knew and became part of a cover up operation.

 

After that came the BBC’s much respected Newsnight programme which decided to investigate the matter. Here, allegations were made against a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher Lord McAlpine of having raped boys in a care home in Wales in the 1970s. These accusations were then found to be false. The BBC’s director-general (also its editor in chief) George Entwhistle has resigned. He claimed he did not know about the contents of Newsnight. Now the director of news and her deputy have been asked to “step aside” pending further enquiries.

 

The big problem within the BBC – apart from the Saville cover-up – is the gaps in editorial accountability and responsibility. None of the top editorial brass apparently knew what was going on with the Newsnight programme, the one which falsely implicated McAlpine and another of Savile which was controversially not aired. Apart from that, basic journalistic checks were not followed. The man who alleged that McAlpine had raped him took back the allegation after he saw his photograph. By then, the programme had been aired and McAlpine had been named.

 

This is a tricky situation for large organisations. There is a line however between giving editorial freedom to your subordinates and being totally hands off. When a story is large enough, senior editorial staff are expected to be involved or at least in the loop. That’s what we have those sometimes interminable editorial meetings.

 

People are blaming a dual reporting structure for the confusion which led to all these errors and quite frankly, disasters. There is a simple way in which newsrooms used to operate – in newspapers at least – to contain problems like this. The chain of command was clear – the editor downwards, minus democracy and a collaborative form of decision-making. Mistakes were made but you knew how and why they were made. In recent times all kinds of management theories have been applied to newsrooms which have changed structures, sometimes beyond recognition. Episodes like this are likely to be more frequent in all newsrooms if journalists are treated like managers and not what they actually are.

 

The BBC’s long experience and reputation has not come to its rescue here. There’s a lesson there for everyone.

 

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Meanwhile, Salahuddin Chaudhry, editor of the Bangladeshi newspaper Weekly Blitz, which first reported on the supposed affair between Pakistan foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar and Pakistan president Asif Zardari’s son Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, has been arrested on the eve of Khar’s visit to Bangladesh. Love takes no prisoners, eh?

 

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