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The BBC has reached a settlement with Lord McAlpine, the politician it erroneously fingered as a sexual predator in a report on its “Newsnight” program.
But how did the BBC botch that report so soundly — especially after after it killed a “Newsnight” story about a BBC presenter credibly accused of pedophilia?
It’s not for lack of editorial process, Sarah Lyall and Nicholas Kulish write: After a 2004 scandal,
The corporation also appointed a deputy director general in charge of news operations; established a “journalism board” to monitor editorial policy; issued numerous new guidelines on journalistic procedures; and put an increasing emphasis on “compliance” — a system in which managers are required to file cumbersome forms flagging dozens of potential trouble spots, from bad language to “disturbing content” like exorcism or beheadings, in every program taped for broadcast.
The report that all but named conservative politician Lord McAlpine as a predator — falsely — “went through ‘every damned layer of BBC management bureaucracy, legal checks’ without anyone raising any serious objections,” BBC Trust head Chris Patten said in a TV interview, Lyall and Kulish report. Former BBC director general (and now New York Times Company CEO) Mark Thompson “added more guidelines and put more emphasis on form-filling and safety checks in news and entertainment programs,” they write.
Poynter’s Kelly McBride says it sounds like the BBC is “very rule-obedient, rather than employing a true process for discerning the best journalistic alternatives.”
There are two problems with rule obedience. First, you can’t possibly write a rule for every situation, so you end up trying to retrofit a rule that doesn’t quite apply. Second, there are both written and unwritten rules in journalism and they contradict each other. Rule obedient newsrooms often end up with two choices — run the story or don’t run the story. And that’s not enough choices.
On “The Daily Show” Wednesday, Jon Stewart joked: “On the bright side, at least someone got accused of pedophilia, right?”
Stewart said Thompson’s presence explained the Times’ new slogan: “All the News That Fits Under the Carpet.”
In Time’s international issue, Catherine Mayer writes about the BBC’s troubles:
If the BBC didn’t matter, not only in Britain but also in remote villages and distant cities around the world, its existential struggle could be dismissed as a case study in management bloat and the sclerosis of large organizations.
But the BBC is more than a national broadcaster; its news division in particular is an international institution that stands for facts, truth and fairness in English and 27 other languages. “People around the world look to the BBC as a source of objective, analytical commentary,” says Jonathan Dimbleby, a broadcaster and writer for the BBC and other organizations. “That is a very precious heritage.” That heritage stands at risk as the BBC dominates its own headlines.
Related: BBC in ‘ghastly mess’ after resignations, as its former leader takes reins at NYT | NYT: Mark Thompson ‘missed opportunities’ to address BBC scandal | Report: Mark Thompson’s office was contacted twice about BBC killing news program | Incoming New York Times CEO faces questions about future as U.K. scandal spreads