10 November 2012
There is a greater
tragedy this weekend
than the disgrace
of the BBC
'The rush to legitimise the witnesses to his alleged crimes is astonishing.'
Scottish Review, 8 November
When I wrote that sentence for publication in Thursday’s edition, I could not have known that it would anticipate events so rapidly. Within 24 hours the rush to legitimise the main witness in the north Wales child abuse scandal – one of its victims, Steve Messham – had been exposed as a catastrophic error of judgement.
Not only on the infamous edition of Newsnight on 2 November, but in subsequent high-profile appearances on other outlets, Mr Messham was given a platform to air allegations about the then un-unnamed senior Tory. It was never clear on what basis his testimony was being accepted as reliable. He looked credible and he sounded credible – was it as simple as that?
It now emerges that no journalist investigating the story took the precaution of showing Mr Messham a photograph of his alleged abuser. Had anyone thought of doing so, Mr Messham would have held up his hand, as he did on Friday after seeing Lord McAlpine on television, and said: 'It wasn't him'.
The BBC's neglect of elementary fact-checking was rather worse than the industry average. Not only did it fail to show Mr Messham a photograph of Lord McAlpine before it broadcast its Newsnight expose. It appears that it failed to give Lord McAlpine an opportunity to answer the charges. Lord McAlpine assured a journalist from Channel 4 News that the BBC had not been in touch with him. For that failure alone, the BBC's director-general (who is also its editor-in-chief) should resign.
However, Channel 4 News itself does not come out of this fiasco unblemished. The night before the presidential election, it relegated the fight for the White House to second place behind a 20-minute follow-up of the Newsnight investigation in which Mr Messham made the same claims as before. Channel 4 News also named another leading figure in the Conservative Party, the late Peter Morrison, as a paedophile. Where was – or is – the evidence for the destruction of Morrison's character? The claim seemed to rest mainly on the say-so of a Guardian journalist and was taken on trust, uninterrogated.
For me, the most jaw-dropping moment of the week was the photo-call arranged for Mr Messham in the office of a cabinet minister. There he was with the Secretary of State for Wales, evidently in earnest discussion about his allegations against senior members of the political establishment, and still no one had thought of showing Mr Messham a photograph of Lord McAlpine (or, for that matter, of anyone else allegedly implicated in the scandal). On the contrary, Mr Messham was clearly being given the imprimatur of official approval. The BBC story had been swallowed whole and David Cameron's government could not wait to show that, unlike the BBC over the Jimmy Savile allegations, it would deal at once with accusations against members of its own party.
It was the Government's hasty, ill-considered response, rather than the BBC’s original, under-researched story, which provoked the sentence: ‘The rush to legitimise the witnesses to his alleged crimes is astonishing.’ But we are now living in a culture in which, in the clamour for instant judgements, often driven by an intensely competitive media environment and fuelled by the vilest gossip on the internet, prominent people are assumed to be guilty unless they can prove themselves innocent.
Lord McAlpine succeeded in clearing his name as soon as he dared to stick his head above the parapet – the wrong head as it turned out. He did so courtesy of the hapless Steve Messham who had not troubled himself, at any stage in the last 20 years, to check a photograph of the man he was accusing, if only to satisfy himself that the police's original identification of his abuser as Lord McAlpine had been correct.
Other accused people are not so fortunate. In Thursday's editorial, I gave several examples of how the clamour for instant judgements is currently manifesting itself.
As soon as Paul Gadd (Gary Glitter) was arrested in the wake of the Savile scandal, there was a media assumption of guilt: 'Get your kit on, Glitter, you're nicked, now get the rest' was the splash headline in one of the tabloids. The former cabinet minister Chris Huhne, who is contesting a criminal charge, was described as 'disgraced' by a broadsheet newspaper last weekend, although he has pleaded not guilty, has not yet been tried, and should be enjoying the presumption of innocence accorded to any citizen in his circumstances. SR has repeatedly complained that Rebekah Brooks's chances of a fair trial have been prejudiced, particularly by the use of the Leveson inquiry as effectively a form of pre-trial.
Most recently, here in Scotland, we have had an allegation, published by the BBC, of criminal wrongdoing against a High Court judge; although the source of the allegation has assured this magazine that it did not intend to make any such allegation, and that it was based on a misunderstanding, we have seen no correction or clarification of it by BBC Scotland. How fruitily ironic that the man drafted in by George Entwistle to investigate the goings-on at Newsnight is none other than the director of BBC Scotland, who seems to be unaware of the need to correct an injustice on his own doorstep.
The theme of Thursday's editorial was the iniquity of trial by media. We have seen in the unravelling of the case against Lord McAlpine one disastrous consequence of it: this is the most monumental cock-up in British journalism in my lifetime. Lord Leveson is about to deliver a crushing verdict against the press; an equally devastating one against the BBC, and its director-general, now looks inescapable.
But the future of BBC journalism, if it has any, is of secondary importance to a greater tragedy. As a result of the events of this week, it will be harder, much harder, for the many victims of child abuse in this country to be believed. The perpetrators of that abuse will be resting easier in their beds tonight.
Kenneth Roy is editor of the Scottish Review
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