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The tangled logic of Peter Oborne and the Savile scandal

You have to hand it to Peter Oborne, the newspaper columnist, for his ability to think several contradictory thoughts at the same time when writing for the need for the head of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten (a former Tory party chairman and Hong Kong governor), to resign over the Savile sex abuse scandal:

“And it is important that he [Chris Patten] goes very soon, because he is doing such damage to an institution that stands for everything that is best about Britain – integrity, fairness, and generosity. Above all, the BBC represents a common sphere of British public life which is not part of the marketplace, and yet not controlled by the state. Alongside Parliament, the NHS, the Army, the monarchy and the rule of law, it is one of our great national institutions.”

Well, if Oborne thinks that the BBC, an organisation that has the privilege of taking revenue in the form of a tax (the licence fee) levied on anyone who owns a television, regardless of their viewing habits, is a “great national institution”, and “not controlled by the state”, which is laughable, then how does he go on to say this:

“It is deeply unfortunate that, over the past few decades, the corporation has been colonised and captured by a narrow, greedy, self-interested and self-perpetuating liberal elite, ignorant of ordinary people and contemptuous of ordinary morality – hence, in part, the Savile affair. The unprincipled and arrogant conduct of that elite has provided a great deal of ammunition to the broadcaster’s enemies, such as the Murdoch press, and thus placed the BBC’s future in jeopardy.”

But if the BBC is a “great institution” – which I contest – then the fact that it has been “colonised and captured” by such terrible people must surely point to the problem that any state-privileged institution with certain monopoly powers, such as the BBC, can be captured by such people. The point is not to create such bodies with such privileges in the first place, since they almost always end up being captured or politically manipulated; or, to establish such powerful checks and balances that bad behaviour is rapidly dealt with. (In the case of the army and the legal profession, even they are not free of problems.)

The foolishness of Oborne is in his naïve belief that all that is necessary is for good and honest people to be put in charge of X or Y, and all will be well. The problem is not the people, but the monopolistic system in place. In all state bodies where an element of state privilege is involved, and where the competitive force of the market does not apply, the way to the top is often through political scheming rather than simple merit, although no doubt there are elements of meritocracy involved, at least in the early years of an institution when there is plenty of idealism in the air.

And the reference to the Murdoch media empire is typically misleading and gratuitous, since Murdoch has, in the face of the outrage about the behaviour of some of his journalists, shut down a newspaper (the News of the World), suffered major shareholder damage, and seen the potential breakup of his empire. Ask yourself this: in a year’s time, does anyone expect anything similar to happen to the organisation known, hilariously, as “Auntie”?

Needless to say, I should add that some of the same problems apply to the National Health Service, the UK’s socialised medical system which, despite some tweaks, still runs on the same quasi-Soviet basis as when it was created in the late 1940s. Savile was able, so it is alleged, to abuse young patients in at least one of its hospitals (Stoke Mandeville), and it is appalling that his activities were not stopped. I am not saying that a completely private medical system would be free of such monsters, but one has to ask whether the public’s almost religious view of the NHS, despite everything, is a hindrance to clear thinking about such matters.

21 comments to The tangled logic of Peter Oborne and the Savile scandal

  • pete

    If you work for the near monopoly health care provider, or for the state funded broadcaster which dominates the industry it means you have to be very brave indeed to blow the whistle on any wrongdoing.

    If anything goes wrong you’ve scuppered your employment chances within your chosen industry to a huge degree.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Pete, excellent point, sir, which only reinforces my argument and demonstrates why Oborne is talking through his hat.

  • Sot

    Perhaps we should start calling the BBC ‘Uncle’ instead of ‘Auntie’. (As in ‘Uncle Jimmy’).

  • Andrew Duffin

    “Alongside Parliament, the NHS, the Army, the monarchy and the rule of law, it is one of our great national institutions.”

    Jeez what a load of tosh.

    Parliament – a hollowed-out shell with all its important functions outsourced to the EU.

    The NHS – A Soviet system delivering the worst healthcare outcomes in the First World.

    The Army – lions led by donkeys, with too many donkeys and nowhere near enough lions.

    The monarchy – the only one he got right, three cheers for Her Maj!!

    The rule of Law – under constant attack from the EU, against which no defence is ever mounted by our Quisling politicians.

    The bbc is in good company, all right.

  • The monarchy. Fair enough Andrew about Liz II but Chuckles?

  • AndrewWS

    “Chuckles” will be a good king. He annoys government ministers, and long may he continue to do so.

  • RAB

    The Black Spider ( I always imagined he wrote in green crayon myself) will not be King for very long if he carries on the way he does now when on the throne.

  • Wouldn’t it be amusing if Chris Petain oversaw the fall of the BBC, who so lied about his beloved EU.

  • whether the public’s almost religious view of the NHS, despite everything, is a hindrance to clear thinking about such matters.

    You put it too mildly. These abuses can happen anywhere, as you say, but in addition to the factors you mention, a further factor making abuse more likely is where prominent members of the organisation are seen as unquestionably virtuous because of their role. This was once the case for Catholic priests; NHS doctors and charity workers fill a similar slot in the modern imagination.

    In committing his crimes Savile was helped by being at the crossover point of two trends. The first trend was that he was perceived as virtuous for being a charity worker and, to a lesser extent, for being part of the nationally revered BBC. The second trend was that the same BBC pointedly did not enforce even the appearance of old-fashioned standards of sexual morality on its DJs because it wanted to lose its reputation for stuffiness and priggishness. He was even better placed to abuse with impunity than the priests – benefiting from the traditional reverence while not being subject to the traditional prohibitions.

    I second your view that Pete’s comment is excellent. Follow the money! It’s not just that the way to rise in such an organisation is only weakly related to merit, as you said, Johnathan, but also that merit is much less of a protection should you fall.

  • Steve P

    Sot: I think “Creepy uncle Beeb” would be better.

  • It is clear that there was at least a culture in which everyone knew what was going on, but in which people remained silent about it if they wanted to continue their own careers. What I am curious about is to what extent there was an active cover-up – ie were and are there fixers in the BBC whose job it basically was/is to clean up the messes created by these people. Have victims been paid money to remain silent, and are the police themselves actively implicated in any such cover-up. Having seen a few scandals like this unfold in other places – often in professional sport – I would expect that the answer is almost certainly yes and yes. But we will find out now, I suspect.

    I am curious about Saville’s knighthood. I was under the impression that the job of the committees who award such honours involved asking a few questions and smelling around a bit to determine whether the intended recipient had any nasty skeletons on the closed before recommending such an honour. Apparently not. The honours system is obviously corrupt and always has been – awarding gongs to people who had paid money for them is why it was invented – but this is a broader sort of corruption I wasn’t quite so cynical as to expect.

  • Sam Duncan

    The BBC has always been controlled by a “narrow, greedy, self-interested and self-perpetuating … elite, ignorant of ordinary people”. John Reith was a deeply arrogant and self-centred man, who thought, just as today’s BBC brass do, that he knew what was best for everyone else.

    Granted, he was no liberal, in any sense of the word (although his invention of the “public corporation” certainly resonated with socialists of the period, and much later: see British Rail, etc.). But as you say, the problem is that such institutions can be captured by the “wrong” people. He created the BBC as an untouchable national shibboleth, whose word was gospel, so when the next generation of the elite he represented had different views, less acceptable to the sort of people who were happy to see a son of the manse given such power, it was easy for them to use the Corporation he created to promote them.

    Plus what Pete said. A very astute observation, which I think goes a long way to explaining why nobody spoke up in either “institution”. The NHS has an almost complete monopoly, and although the BBC’s has been eroded somewhat, it still dominates the British broacast media in a way Murdoch can only dream of.

    Sot, Steve: I was thinking exactly the same thing.

  • Sam Duncan

    Turns out Anna Raccoon was at Duncroft School during the period Saville was supposed to have been abusing pupils, and smells a rat. It was the Duncroft allegations that were the subject of the Newsnight story, and which kicked off the whole affair when they finally surfaced.

    It’s an interesting insight into the media frenzy, but I don’t think this exonerates the BBC much. It may well susbsantiate the “editorial reasons” for pulling the Newsnight piece (which Guido is confidently labelling “incorrect”; I wouldn’t be so sure after reading Anna’s account) but the fact remains that Saville worked at the Corporation for decades while his predelictions were apparently well-known, and nobody said anything. That’s the real scandal.

  • Apparently at least four police forces knew of the allegations, which makes me think even more that they question of who and which organisations precisely covered up for him and precisely how is very important to find out the answers to.

  • Paul Marks

    J.P. is correct.

    Peter Hitchens as a Hegalian view of the state – he thinks it can be noble and wonderful. The manifestaton of God upon the Earth.

    This view may be less absurd than Trotskyism that Mr Hitchens believed in his youth (although that is debateable), but it is still absurd.

    Mr Hitchens thinks his opinion is a traditional British conservative one – of course it is not. British thinkers only started using the term “the state” in a positive way in imitation of German, especially PRUSSIAN, practice (not only German philosophy – but also the “cult of Frederick the Great”).

    It is not that Peter Hitchens does not see the dreadful mess the BBC (and the NHS and…) actually are – it is that the “Platonic form” of what these “institutions” could be (or every “truly” are) is more important to Mr Hitchens than reality is.

    As for his contempt for “the marketplace” – that is also (in origin) from Plato. But let us humour Mr Hitchens…..

    Why does he not set up a charitiable trust to fund a “public service broadcaster” BBC.

    People could donate their money VOLUNTARILY – and the Board of Governors could be made up of noble people, perhaps with Peter Hitchens as Chairman.

    “No Paul, that will not work – we must use the state, but a purified state……”

    As if the using violence to fund one’s pet projects (such as “public service broadcasting”) can ever be anything other than a corrupt, squalid mess.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Paul, it is Peter Oborne, not Hitchens. Mind you, they sometimes hold the same sort of views. At least you did not say Peter Cook or Peter Sellers!

  • Julie near Chicago

    Here’s a question I mean seriously: Just what do the various commenters (and pundits, writers, scholars, men-on-the-street who are not found here, nor sympathetic to Samizdata’s general viewpoint) mean by “the State”? Is there a single definition which nearly all would accept as being pretty close to what each, as an individual, means when he uses the term?

  • Paul Marks

    Silly me – and I have now mentioned Mr Hitchens (in this context) elsewhere.

    My apologies to Mr Hitchens.

    As for Peter Oborne.

    I do not regard him as an interesting writer or broadcaster

  • Alisa

    LOL Paul:-)

    Food for thought indeed, Julie.

  • Paul Marks

    Julie’s question.

    The state – the group of people who take money from me by the threat of force and say (and believe) that they have a “right” to it.

    And the group of people who tell me what I may and may not do (and threaten force if I disobey them) and again say they have a “right” to do so.

    It is this claim of a moral right to take money and to order me about that makes the state different from Al Capone.

    As far as I know he never claimed a moral right to do what he did in Chicago.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Thanks, Paul. :>)

    Yes…That’s part of it. …But… there’s more to it than that. The thing called “the state” has to include, in some capacity or other, something called “the people.” And it has to be recognized (even if only “negative” recognition, “We refuse to recognize ‘The People’s Republic of China’ as a State” or some such) by other similar bodies.

    I think I’m trying to piece together a theory of “The State” that more-or-less boils down to what people (most people) seem to mean when they use the term. Of course, John Q. Public doesn’t really talk much about “the State,” right? He talks about “the government,” or else about “the nation” or “the country.” Who talks about The State? Anarchists, libertarians, Marxists…political scientists. And some government types, diplomats, so forth.

    Signor Capone. Yes, well. That’s what distinguishes him from the current crew running Chicago.