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Expert Comment: Newsnight and This Morning to be investigated by Ofcom

Ofcom logo Friday 16 November 2012

Paddy Hoey, Lecturer in Media at Hope, on the Ofcom investigation into Newsnight and This Morning.

News that the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight is to be investigated by the media watchdog Ofcom alongside ITV’s daily festival of fluff and celebrity gossip, This Morning, is one of the more unusual media stories of recent times.

Both have become embroiled in just the latest widespread moral panic over paedophilia which this time erupted with the news of TV star Jimmy Savile’s long history of abusing underage girls.

The two programmes have become victim of being centripetally pulled into the maelstrom of moral outrage that has, in the end, not focused on the victims, or helping them, but in public expressions calls for the sacking of broadcasters and a witch hunt for celebrity suspects.

On the one hand the BBC was seen to be culpable for a 2009 decision to spike Newsnight’s investigation on Savile and running tributes to the star, who had spent much of his broadcasting career with the corporation, after he died. The outgoing Director General, George Entwhistle had barely got his feet under the desk before his position was being called into question by the BBC’s opponents – he had been at the centre of the decision.

However, chastened by the outcry of not running the story and sensing a wider appetite for finding and flogging more public paedophiles, the programme ran the now infamous report which allowed former top Tory grandee, Lord McAlpine, to be falsely named online on social media as the central figure in a North Wales child abuse ring.

The moral frenzy over public paedophiles reached a panicked and surreal height when cuddly former children’s TV presenter, Phillip Schofield, decided to ambush Prime Minister David Cameron on air with list of Tory paedophiles he had found after a short search online. He was hardly upholding investigative journalism’s fine history and traditions, especially when the camera angle made the names visible.

Social media was alive with hubris from opponents of the Tories, revelling in the ‘paedo conservatives’. No-one stopped to ask if it was true – the 10 Downing Street press office could quite reasonably lament that it was “trial by Twitter.” Newspapers with an anti-BBC bias, mostly on the basis of commercial interests, got stuck in, and it resulted in Entwhistle’s resignation less than two months into the job.

So many questions and issues need to follow the Ofcom judgement which could result in the censure and disciplinary procedures for both parties. The BBC has already come to an agreement with McAlpine and Schofield has himself been disciplined by this ITV bosses.

Firstly, the question remains: how do we regulate what is said online either on social media or in internet forums? Who will carry the can for these spectacular breaches of privacy and reputation, when they are so widespread? How is it possible even to do so?

Secondly, how do we find ourselves drawn into regular spirals of moral panic over paedophilia in which the panics are very little to do with the victims and their plight, but about frightening people to sell newspapers? A number of newspapers condemned the BBC as a whole, failing to see that it is a huge public body that does much more than just produce Newsnight and no newspaper related why it had failed or refused to unmask Savile.

The BBC, because of the continuing debates over public service broadcasting and the future of the licence fee, has danced to the drummer and engaged in a public flagellation just to satisfy gleeful opponents. Programmes that were world leading and breaking important news stories a month ago were now suddenly unfit for purpose.

In a strange turn of events, on Monday the story became about the chain of command in BBC newsgathering and, step by step, we were further and further away from the victims and their plight. Perhaps the Ofcom ruling will close this episode, but don’t be so sure, as long as we have rumour mills and social media, there’s always the chance someone is going to be defamed.



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