Wednesday, 21 November 2012

BBC crisis- Part Two: what lies beneath?

In many ways this story follows the pattern of the classic moral panic:

"A term popularized by Stanley Cohen to describe a media-inspired overreaction to a certain group or type of behaviour that is taken as symptomatic of general social disorder." (Anthony Giddens)

The scandal(s) bring together a number of themes which have been in circulation for a while. The first is of course celebrity; Jimmy Savile was  an extremely well known personality from TV and Radio, as a DJ, Top of the Pops presenter and as the host of a highly popular Saturday night peaktime programme which bore his name, Jim'll fix it. He was also famous for his eccentric appearance and personality and for his charity fundraising. He had the ear of politicians and royalty and when he died crowds lined the streets for his funeral procession in a way that I can only ever recall previously seeing for Princess Diana and George Best. As the story has progressed and more and more people have come forward with stories of abuse by Savile, others have started to voice their disquiet about what they 'suspected' while he was still alive and very quickly media coverage of Savile has shifted from seeing him as a saintly figure to seeing him as a devil. 

Some commentators have blamed the behaviour of Savile and others on 'the 60s' as an over-permissive period, on pop music and on the 'culture at the BBC'; this celebrity theme has been underlined as other living  DJs and comedians and dead actors have been named by individuals as having abused or harrassed them in the period from the 1950s to the 1980s. Some have had a tenuous connection with Savile, while others have been the subject of rumour in the past. Of course, it has been very easy for newspapers in particular to publish names of the dead and accuse them; interestingly, some of these papers were offered the same stories in the past when those accused were still alive, but showed no interest in running them.

The second key theme is that of anxieties around childhood; periodically this surfaces with a lot of press coverage, usually as a result of a court case or a child abduction and often spirals off into other areas which are only vaguely connected. At the moment, almost every day sees a new headline about child abuse- there have been several involving historical cases against priests and bishops, in addition to Savile-related stories recently. The re-opened investigation into the abuse at the North Wales Children's home, with the suggestion of a paedophile ring amongst politicians played further on this theme. This week, the report into some children in Doncaster torturing and sexually abusing some other children was released and made front page news and today a Barnado's report came out which gave statistics both for the number of children sexually abused by gangs and the number 'at risk' of being so. As many commentators have suggested, quite quickly the victims get forgotten as the stories move to focus on the particular obsession of those reporting on them. Thus the Newsnight stories became more about 'the culture of the BBC' and arguments in favour of its overhaul and the aftermath of the allegations against the Conservative peer about the 'dangers of twitter'. Today, the gang stories have been used as an excuse to accuse the report writers of inverted racism (supposedly under-reporting the role of Pakistani gangs) and several times I have heard mention of internet porn and the 'sexualisation of children' as major contributory factors to what has gone on. It seems that the child abuse stories can be used to back up whatever world view the writer wants to convey.

The third theme, alluded to above, has been the role of the news media themselves. The inadequacies of the Newsnight story were used from the outset as an excuse  by newspapers to bash the BBC, which they see as having been one of their sternest critics during the Leveson inquiry. The Daily Mail led this attack from the moment of the ITV Exposure programme, rubbing its hands with glee over the departure of the Director General. Rupert Murdoch in particular has returned to the theme of abolishing the licence fee, suggesting the BBC has 'lost the trust' of the people, a theme from which his company would stand to benefit, as it would put the BBC in a weaker position against  Sky much more if it had to raise its funds commercially. The rather foolish behaviour of Philip Schofield in handing the Prime Minister the card full of names he had found online has also been the object of newspaper scorn, with speculation that he would lose his job and also that ITV might have to pay substantial damages. As well as this opposition to the BBC, the press has been quick to complain about the role of the internet, where several thousand tweeters are believed to have named the accused Tory Peer. When the mistaken identity was revealed, there was a large element of glee from the press, with accusatory fingers pointed at prominent tweeters who had named him, such as Speaker's wife Sally Bercow and Guardian blogger George Monbiot. A number of people pointed out that less than two years ago, several of the papers themselves were guilty of false accusations, when they ran front page stories about landlord and ex-teacher Chris Jeffries,  accusing him of the murder of Joanna Yeates

Finally, conspiracy theories online have abounded since the Savile story broke. The feeling that politicians are untrustworthy has been around for some time and was particularly prominent during the expenses scandal; people were very quick to believe that they could be a whole lot worse than that as rumours flew around online. A quick search on twitter for the trending word 'Tory' broke it down into 'Tory paedo', 'Tory abuser' and others. Lots of links were posted, mostly to blogs hosted abroad; one that I found with accusations hidden within the site's html code, alleged the whole scandal was bound up with the involvement of security forces in cover-ups of the murders of a TV personality, an MP and a footballer. It was very easy to get carried away with the stories, particularly at a time when a number of historical cover-ups, such as Hillsborough, were in the news. Conspiracy theorists such as David Icke, whose allegations are surely a lot worse than people just mentioning the Tory peer's name on twitter, has been expounding his theories at length for some years. 

So this is a complex story, which could perhaps be seen to allow people to project upon it all their own concerns and anxieties and for some of those in power to use it to attack other institutions. For the ordinary twitter user, it perhaps provides a salutary lesson- don't tweet rumours as you could get done for libel, or at least be threatened by lawyers that if you don't pay up, you will be sued.

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