There may be cause for a slight smile on the faces of some senior BBC figures at the moment after their travails of the last couple of weeks. It’s not that they’re out of the woods as far as the whole Savile/Newsnight/DG resignation debacle is concerned – more that they’re no longer alone in the media doghouse.
The communications regulator Ofcom is looking into the BBC’s behaviour but at the same time it will be investigating the ITV This Morning programme and Philip Schofield’s ‘ambushing’ of David Cameron by waving a list of those who’d been named in the electronic world as possible paedophiles. In fact one of the contributors to the BBC’s own Any Questions programme on Radio 4 this weekend – Alex Deane who’s Head of Public Affairs for Public Relations company Weber Shandwick – said in his view it was ITV, rather than the BBC, who’d committed the cardinal sin of telling people to go and look online for the name of the ‘Top Tory’ rumoured to have been involved in abuse. It was probably sweeter still that this came from a man who is normally no cheerleader for the Corporation and who thinks it should be privatised.
Then the chink in the clouds opened still further with Lord McAlpine’s lawyers saying they would be seeking bigger libel damages from ITV than the £185,000 settlement reached with the BBC over the Newsnight November 2nd broadcast. Lord McAlpine was always at pains to point out that he was conscious that any amount he received from the BBC would have to come from licence payers. ITV on the other hand is a commercial entity and cannot expect the same consideration.
In his letter to the MP Rob Wilson, Ofcom’s Director of Standards, Tony Close, said: “I can confirm that Ofcom considers that both the Newsnight and This Morning programmes raise issues warranting investigation in relation to: 1) the application of generally accepted standards by ITV and the BBC and 2) the application of standards to prevent unfair treatment to an individual and unwarranted infringements of privacy.”
That’s certain to lead to more uncomfortable days for the BBC and some disquiet at ITV, which says it’s already taken disciplinary measures. But for Ofcom this affair could be seen in a wholly more positive light. With Lord Leveson’s recommendations for press regulation about to be published this is a timely reminder that some have suggested an Ofcom type body to oversee newspapers or even that Ofcom itself should have its role extended to take on the brief. What better way to show your credentials as a regulator with TV than to take on the two big broadcasters in the one investigation.
Of course it’s all too late to influence Lord Leveson but it won’t harm the cause of Ofcom boss Ed Richards who is seen by some as a strong candidate to be the BBC’s Director General. Either way there’s likely to be pressure for a review of how broadcasting is regulated – and that could mean more power for Ofcom, particularly in relation to what happens on the web. One of its former Chief Advisers, Martin Campbell, who now chairs the Broadcast Journalism Training Council, says in a contribution to a BBC Online story about the future of the BBC: “The Newsnight mess and the This Morning debacle are both prime examples of a worrying new broadcasting arrogance born out of a frustration that websites, blogs and posts can create waves daily without the risk of regulatory wrath. Internet “news” is regularly being reported by the traditional broadcast media with a cavalier disregard for the level of responsibility viewers and listeners are entitled to expect. It’s not just Leveson, broadcast regulation needs a good look at.”
So a word of advice for any senior broadcast executives who may be in need of a new berth – look for an opening in regulation.