The BBC is like a drunk zig-zagging down the street, throwing up on the left because last time he threw up on the right.
It declined to run a Newsnight programme alleging that one of its own dead stars, Jimmy Savile, carried out multiple acts of child sexual abuse, on grounds of insufficient evidence. The evidence was sufficient for ITV, which broke the story.
Facing criticism for its timidity from all sides someone at the BBC had a really great idea about how to make amends… run a Newsnight programme alleging that someone else carried out multiple acts of child sexual abuse, and do it on near as dammit no attempt to gather evidence whatsoever. And this time pick someone still alive and able to sue because it’s more glorious that way. The makers of the programme seem to have thought that by not actually naming Alistair McAlpine in so many words they would be immune from the laws of libel. You would think that the training of journalists (the BBC’s is meant to be world class) would include the fact that any indirect statement capable of being understood by the average reader is by that very fact capable of bearing a defamatory imputation.
The left wing Guardian comes out better than most in this affair; it said on November 9th that this was a case of mistaken identity.
One can see the appeal of this story from the BBC’s point of view. Third, it would be a belated show of anti-paedo crusading zeal; second it would add weight to the BBC’s “everybody was at it in the 70s” defence of its record in allowing Savile to get away with his crimes for decades, despite persistent rumours and allegations; and first, oh, very much first, Lord McAlpine was a senior Tory from the Thatcher era. That made the story too good to check. Specifically, to good to waste time either with contacting Lord McAlpine, who might have mentioned if asked that he lived in the South of England during the period in which he was alleged to be regularly abusing boys in North Wales, or with showing a picture of Lord McAlpine to the man who claimed to have been abused by him, Steve Messham. Having now seen a picture, Mr Mesham has stated that Lord McAlpine was not the man whom he alleges abused him.
So now Entwistle’s gone. ITV would be looking good in comparison were it not for the efforts of Phillip “Paedofinder General” Schofield. Really, one would expect no better from the BBC’s top investigative team but what is the world coming to when you can’t even trust ex-children’s TV presenters to back up their allegations? While it is true that the internet has made it quicker to research a story, three minutes is even now not usually considered quite time enough.
The BBC and ITV have made what may turn out to be a very expensive mistake (and I doubt that the Guardian’s George Monbiot has slept well these last few nights), but it would be unfair to lambaste the media and let their audience off scot-free. Why do so many people seem to flip between denial and paranoia with no intervening pause for thought? What is it about the human mind that seems to prefer any extreme to the idea of judging each individual case on its individual facts?