What we learn from the ugly side of the BBC

Jimmy Saville Source: Wikipedia

Here at the In Box, we’ve grappled at length with the travails of traditionalist organizations caught up in long-running child-sex scandals.

Again and again, the institutional shame isn’t the crime — pedophilia, rape and sexual assault can happen anywhere, anytime– but in the coverup, and the fact that people in positions of power allowed children to be abused for so long.

From the Roman Catholic church to the Church of England to the Boy Scouts, finding the truth has taken far, far too long.

Even the hallowed halls of college sports arenas proved vulnerable to the self-serving coverup.

But it’s important and only fair to acknowledge, and speak bluntly, when similar woeful crimes occur in a modernist, secular institution — and this time the shame of cover-up falls very close to home indeed.

The BBC is sort of a sister organization to America’s public radio network.  NCPR and most other public radio stations in the US carry at least some of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s programming.

For decades, “the Beeb” has been the gold standard of journalistic rectitude, honesty, self-examination and transparency.  Or so we thought.

It turns out the network — along with a lot of respected British institutions — turned a blind eye to the predatory nastiness of Jimmy Savile, a popular radio and television personality who allegedly assaulted hundreds of young girls over a span of three decades.

Network executives turned a blind eye to his behavior and engaged in a cover-up when a documentary about his purported crimes was censored. That bit of skulduggery is still being investigated.

Meanwhile, one of the BBC’s flagship news programs, “Newsnight,” appeared cheerfully eager to report on allegations of child-sex abuse on the part of a British Conservative politicians.

It turns out, the BBC got that story woefully wrong and was forced to apologize “unreservedly for having broadcast this report.”  The network has put Newnight on hiatus, roughly the equivalent of putting “60 Minutes” in a time-out.

The BBC’s top executive, George Entwistle, has resigned, and it appears likely that far more severe consequences will follow.

The take-away is clear.  The leaders of any organization — conservative, liberal, traditional, modern — are vulnerable to thinking that their careers and their institutions are more important than the well-being and safety of children.

That is a sad and astonishing but unavoidable fact about human nature. People who should know better seem remarkably blithe about setting aside the most obvious moral function of any society — protecting kids.

Even organizations that lack the cloistered, hierarchical and sex-averse trappings of many churches and other traditionalist organizations are capable of turning away, of accepting upside-down priorities.

Here in the U.S., the only logical and decent response is to toughen laws criminalizing neglect and cover-ups  that leave children vulnerable.

We should eliminate statutes of limitation and we should approve severe penalties — for individuals and institutions — for those who enable child rape.

Meanwhile, my hope as a journalist is that the BBC will return to its roots as a truth-telling organization, revealing fully and completely how this horror was allowed to go on, and turning over all relevant information to police.

Perhaps with that insight, the proper people can be punished, and we can all learn more about how to prevent this kind of nightmare from recurring.


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8 Comments on “What we learn from the ugly side of the BBC”

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  1. mervel says:

    At some level it does seem always to come back to pride and power. But it is actually fascinating how a much alike all of these cases are, from Penn State to the BBC to the Roman Catholic Church, to our own local Youth clubs etc.

  2. newt says:

    I wonder how many female BBC executives were privy to this coverup? My guess is few to none. First of all, there were probably few to none serving as executives while the late Mr. Saville was up to his dirty business. More importantly, women have a tendency for getting all crazy and making loud, unpleasant noises when they learn of such activities. Males, on the other hand, tend to let our “he’s one of the boys/don’t rock the boat” proclivities. How clever of us to prohibit or discourage participation of women in so many organizations, religious, sports, and so forth. It’s not that men are OK with pedophiles, it’s just, well, we just don’t want to cause an unpleasant stir in the clubhouse. Women just don’t get this, and can’t be counted on at all to keep their heads down when disgusting breaches of simple morality take place around them One way to reduce incidents in the future, is cast a critical and suspicious eye on organizations that, deliberately, or covertly, keep women out of executive or supervisory roles. Not that having women involved doesn’t makes sense from a purely qualitative point of view.

  3. Pete Klein says:

    The only comment I will make is that I am not in the least bit interested in the problems of the BBC.

  4. Peter Hahn says:

    This is another one of those clay feet (in the face of evil) stories in a place where you wouldnt expect it..

  5. Mervel says:

    Institutions are made up of people who all have the same weaknesses regardless of what the institutions may or may not represent. However the more we learn about these cases I think it is helpful; when it happens in the future we can better see the patterns, the vaunted beloved leader, the functionaries protecting the institution, the refusal to believe what is right in front of our face simply because it is so disturbing we choose to suspend belief, and an organizational culture that fosters group think.

    I would like to see some examples of institutions and individuals who have done things right, those would be helpful also.

  6. What all these scandals have in common is this: an institutional culture. A staid, sclerotic institutional culture that prioritizes and promotes cover your own (rear end) behavior.

  7. Pete Klein’s comment reminds me… in the lead up to election day, you (Brian M) promised a re-think of what the purpose of the all-over-the-map In Box was going to be. I hope you haven’t cast this aside.

  8. mervel says:

    It is true Brian, also we must remember that particular culture usually works, getting caught is the exception. The majority of these cases turn out just fine for the institution. Look how LONG it took to finally get at Paterno and Penn State, decades and many people doing just fine in there career by not rocking the boat. How many other colleges are covering up rapes, sexual abuse etc, on campus? What are the procedures? I know on our local colleges it is not the policy to automatically call the police for sexual abuse, you are supposed to report it to the advocate from the University first then you can decide “together” what would be the best choice for you to do, gee I wonder what they decide? To me the key is outside intervention and a culture of transparency, encourage these things and you will do better. But organizations that are not transparent that encourage taking care of things in house, these are signs of trouble.

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