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[Newsmaker] BBC struggles with crisis upon crisis

The entrance to the BBC headquarters in London. (AP-Yonhap News)
The entrance to the BBC headquarters in London. (AP-Yonhap News)
The BBC, one of Britain’s most enduring and well-respected institutions, is in crisis. In a case of controversy following controversy, an episode of the broadcaster’s investigative program “Newsnight” on Nov. 2 wrongly implicated Alistair McAlpine, a Thatcher-era treasury minister of the Conservative Party, in allegations of child sex abuse.

This came just a month after revelations that the BBC had canceled a “Newsnight” investigation into abuse allegations against the late Jimmy Savile, one of the broadcaster’s longest-appearing stars, who has been implicated in the abuse of some 300 people.

Suspicions of a cover-up in the Savile case, and charges of negligence and incompetence in the Nov. 2 “Newsnight” report, culminated in the resignation of BBC director general George Entwistle on Saturday. With numerous questions remaining, however, the controversy is unlikely to dissipate soon.

The saga provides a number of invaluable lessons for both the producers and consumers of journalism.

First, no matter how noble its raison d’etre, the BBC, which reaches 166 million people weekly, is a massive bureaucracy and, consequently, vulnerable to miscommunication, inefficiency and secrecy.

Second, the affair highlights the growing impotence of traditional media in controlling information in the face of rule-free online communications. While the BBC had not named McAlpine in its report, it prompted enough online discussion linking him to the abuse that he was forced to issue a public denial. Soon after, the source of the abuse claims, Steve Messham, admitted to having incorrectly indentified his abuser.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the saga shows that the journalistic impulse to uncover injustice is bound to lead to injustice itself if not tempered by caution and dispassionate judgment. Stung by criticism of its handling of claims against one of its own, “Newsnight” pursued new claims of abuse with vigor. In the process, it failed to establish the facts beyond a reasonable doubt, tarnishing the name of an innocent man. Righteous intentions alone cannot guide the journalist in his quest for truth.

By John Power (