The phrase “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” frequently comes up in newsroom conversations. Whatever you do or don’t do as a journalist, someone will already be lining up to attack you.
And nowhere more so than within the BBC, which this week has had to explain the background to a series of allegations being aired by its rival about the late Jimmy Savile. Whilst the BBC itself has said it’s “shocked” that some of the alleged abuse happened on its premises, wider questions are being asked about the Corporation’s own journalism.
Perhaps what’s most galling about this – from a professional point of view – is that some journalists have done everything possible to try to discredit their own colleagues. So much so that Peter Rippon, the editor of Newsnight, has attempted to set the record straight about why the BBC dropped a previous investigation into Savile. Amid repeatedly-denied allegations of a cover up, Peter Rippon concludes:
Did my bosses order me to do anything? No. I did discuss it with my bosses in News in the same way I do any contentious story we are working on. I was told in the strongest terms that I must be guided by editorial considerations only and that I must not let any wider considerations about the BBC affect my judgement.
The fact that the BBC has the capacity to do this may feel odd to other organisations but it is fundamental to the trust we share with our audience.
But it hasn’t stopped the conspiracists. One online forum members went as far as to post the following opinion – linking the Newsnight case with other stories such as the recent child abuse case in Rochdale:
If the leader of social services is being questioned by a BBC journalist for a BBC program about transparency and cover up..all that person has to do now is question why the BBC failed to act in the Saville case to be let off the hook. And will damage the confidence of the BBC.
Perhaps that’s going a little far. But it demonstrates the kind of backlash BBC journalists face on almost a daily basis. I frequently get asked why I didn’t cover a certain angle on stories, or why I chose to interview person x over person y. The answer is often different depending on the circumstances.
But I can categorically state that in my workplace nothing’s every been swept under the carpet because of some wider management agenda. No journalist worth their salt would ever allow that to happen. And if it did, I’d be the kind of person to put my neck on the block and go all the way to the DG.
Personally I’m pleased that Peter Rippon has spoken out – and has done so on the eve of the ITV Savile programme. Millions will watch tonight’s programme, and many will most probably conclude “I’m not all that surprised”.
But whilst a dead man cannot defend himself, a journalist can, and should.