An Editor and a Diet for Auntie BBC

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By Marc Champion

George Entwistle's tenure as head of the British Broadcasting Corp. must rank among the shortest and unhappiest in the history of media: It lasted just 54 days and included two pedophilia-related news scandals, one formal apology to the victims and a resignation speech.

The scandals (more on those later) have severely damaged the BBC's reputation as one of the world's finest media organizations -- fine enough to tempt the New York Times to hire Entwistle's predecessor, Mark Thompson, as chief executive officer. Fine enough, too, for every U.K. citizen with a TV set to pay "Auntie," as the BBC is affectionately known, a special TV tax, called a license, of 145.50 pounds ($230.75) a year.

The BBC's implosion could hardly come at a worse time. The Leveson inquiry, set up by the government in response to the widespread phone hacking at U.K. tabloid newspapers belonging to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., is due to deliver its conclusions soon. Lord Justice Leveson, the chairman of the inquiry, may recommend a new statutory agency to regulate the printed press and possibly professional licenses for journalists.

The U.K. news media has a lot to fix, but these are bad ideas that Prime Minister David Cameron should ignore.

The phone hacking involved criminal acts that resulted from the anything-goes news culture encouraged inside News Corp.'s tabloid titles, abetted by close ties to government. The police looked the other way, in a dereliction of their duty to protect. The journalists and editors involved knew they were breaking the law, not just a regulator's code. They knew they could go to jail, not just lose a journalism license.

What's needed is to enforce the existing laws and to ensure that no single media group controls so great a portion of the U.K. news market that governments can be intimidated or co-opted. This is as much a problem of policing as it is of journalism. Press regulators don't address these problems; they instead offer governments a tempting means to suppress criticism.

Look at the BBC. Because it is a public broadcaster that exists on public money, "Auntie" is overseen by two regulatory bodies -- the BBC Trust (an independent board whose members are appointed by the government) and Ofcom (a statutory regulator that oversees broadcast media).

Those regulators didn't help in bringing to light child abuse, over a period of decades and often on BBC premises, by the late "Top of the Pops" host Jimmy Savile. Nor did they prevent the normally hard-hitting news show "Newsnight" from pulling an investigation of Savile last year and then airing one last week that falsely accused a Conservative Party member of child rape.

Although not named by "Newsnight," the accused was quickly identified in the blogosphere as the former Tory treasurer Lord McAlpine. The sole source of the story, the alleged victim, was never shown a picture of McAlpine to confirm his identity. No attempt was made to contact McAlpine. Once he saw a picture online, the victim said he'd identified the wrong man.

As Entwistle said in his resignation speech, this was "unacceptably shoddy journalism," a lapse on a scale that's hard to square with the BBC's usual standards.

The pedophilia scandals also show that the BBC's current management structure doesn't ensure steady editorial control. This is a huge organization, running 10 TV channels, 50 radio stations and broadcasting around the globe in 27 languages. Entwistle was both the publisher and editor-in-chief of this behemoth. No wonder he wasn't on top of what one show, on one channel was doing. As editor-in-chief he should have been.

Those jobs should be split in future, with the buck stopping at an editor in charge of and solely responsible for the output of news staff.

The BBC also has to better define its business so it is no longer torn by competing arguments against taxing the public. The BBC rightly feels it needs to do the worthy but unprofitable programming that commercial rivals eschew, including expensive investigative journalism such as was required -- but not executed -- for the McAlpine case. The BBC outsourced that story to a freelance journalist, albeit an ex-BBC one.

But the BBC also feels the need to show value for money, by competing in ratings with commercial rivals, so it does a lot of reality TV and lowbrow entertainment, too. And it feels the need to give something to every demographic of license-fee payer, including listeners of a range of low-audience digital radio stations, so everyone feels they get a return on their license fee.

The BBC's license fee is a tax by another name, and just as not every taxpayer uses the public schools they help to pay for, not everyone has to watch the BBC regularly to benefit. The tax should remain for as long as a majority of Britons want to pay for a public broadcaster.

If the BBC is overstretched, it should pare back. And if Britons decide that in the digital age a public broadcaster is no longer worth paying for, so be it. Trying to dominate every part of the airwaves won't stop that moment from coming.

(Marc Champion is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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-0- Nov/15/2012 22:04 GMT