It has been a dark period for the state of UK investigative journalism. The BBC’s flagship news programme “Newsnight” presented a documentary this month that accused a former treasurer of the Conservative Party (Lord McAlpine) of being a child abuser. It transpired that the person who made the allegations in the programme had wrongly accused Lord McAlpine as his attacker – which happened during the 1970s. At no time in the programme did “Newsnight” name McAlpine but the damage was done anyway.
After the programme was aired the accuser admitted once he saw a photo of Lord McAlpine that the he was not the abuser. It also transpired that “Newsnight” had failed to ask McAlpine for a right to reply bringing these alleagations to air. A shocking error on basic journalism.
“Of course they should have called me and I would have told them exactly what they learned later on – that it was complete rubbish and that I had only ever been to Wrexham once in my life.
“They could have saved themselves a lot of agonising, and money actually, if they had just made that telephone call.” – Lord McApline
By then one other TV programme as well as folks on twitter began to name McAlpine as the child abuser and joined in the attack on the innocent man.
In the week leading up to the broadcasting of the documentary the programme had been promoted aggressively in the media “they will be naming a top Tory as a child abuser”. I had never seen such a hype for any “Newsnight” programme in the 25 years that I have been watching it. “Newsnight” was even trending in tweetworld. So for the programme makers to get such serious allegations so wrong is unbelievable. It has to be remembered that the context and atmosphere this news item had been shown.
For the past year now a number of people have come forward to admit that the late BBC broadcaster Jimmy Saville had abused them when they were children. The number of people that had come out was reaching shocking proportions. What made this even more startling was that “Newsnight” had produced a documentary on the child abuse claims against Saville earlier this year, but decided not to air it.
This has since caused much embarrassment to the BBC as to why they shelved the Jimmy Saville news item – even though those allegations against him were corroborated. Were the BBC trying to play catch up with the Lord McAlpine alleagations after messing up on Saville?
Since the state funded BBC aired the allegations against McAlpine the repercussions for the organisation have been swift and drastic with the Director General forced to resign and a number of senior BBC news staff removed from their posts. For such a programme to be cleared for broadcasting without cross checking is just sacrilege and it likely that others at the BBC will pay a severe price.
ITV who also aired the allegations and have since apologised and compensated Lord McAlpine. But Lord McAlpine’s lawyers could now sue some of those who tweeted these allegations on social media. Twitter has become a litigious minefield for some trigger happy libellous tweets.
Sound investigative journalism is so important for any genuine democratic society. Such good journalism allows the public to be aware of issues that would normally be ignored or buried by the powers that be. I do not know what we will happen to the future of “Newsnight” but hopefully it can come back strong and regain it’s reputation; and not be dumbed down or done away with.
Why have we got to this level of poor and unprofessional journalism? Sensationalism over quality in my opinion.
Investigative journalism in the UK has fallen in quality and output since the 1980/90s. Then series programmes such as “This Week”, “Cutting Edge”, “The Cook Report”, “Bandung File”, “World In Action” and “Panorama” set a standard that was courageous, respected, informative, influential and ground breaking. Without these programmes many innocent people would have remained in prison for crimes they did not commit e.g. Guildford Four and the Cardiff Three.
But in the race for viewing figures programmes like “World in Action” were cancelled and “Panorama” was reduced from a 40 minute serious programme into 20 minute generally lightweight shows. I watched episodes of Panorama over the past year or 2 and at the end I would think “and?” or “tell us something we do not know”. The few investigative programmes covered topics that were flavour of the week but lacked any substance or originality.
In today’s UK, TV executives seem to take a dim view of serious investigative journalism and limit their resources and support for such programming. Instead, UK television is over run by reality type programmes which are cheap to produce but generate high viewing figures and revenue from advertisements or merchandise. So those of us interested in fresh quality investigative journalism have had to rely chiefly on the excellent magazine Private Eye to get an idea of what is really happening in our society.
I do fear that the recent mess caused at “Newsnight” could have a negative effect on the future of television investigative journalism in the UK. A fate we cannot afford to lose. But TV programme makers may be become fearful in tackling difficult issues for fear of retributions.
The BBC began to lose their cutting edge on investigative journalism ever since they aired- back in 2003- a programme which accused the UK Government of “sexing up” an intelligence report in order to support the case for the war in Iraq. Then the BBC senior officials caved in to government pressure and gave a grovelling apology to Tony Blair’s government and led to the dismissal of Greg Dyke as Director General. But it turned out the BBC had grounds to make those allegations and the loss of Greg Dyke is still felt up to this day.
Given how the media ownership in the UK is divided amongst the few it is important for the UK to have a respected,strong and impartial investigative journalistic framework both at the BBC and Channel 4. Even though the number of investigative TV programmes in the UK has dwindled, thanks to technology we are still able to witness such unique programmes online and via international news stations that include, CBS (60 Minutes) Russia Today, France 24 and Al Jazeera.
UK taxpayers need a strong, fearless and probing “Newsnight”; but not at the expense of damaging an innocent man’s reputation (apology or no apology) which can never be fully repaired.