Sunday 28 October 2012

Triple standards?

Since drafting my Double Standard? post in mid October, the BBC itself has been sent reeling by the Jimmy Savile scandal - a dizzying swirl of child sex abuse and sleaze allegations made worse by accusations of a decades-long cover-up and recent bungling by the leadership of the corporation. I was waiting to see how Sunday, given its long track record of keenly pursuing the Catholic Church over the issue, would respond to its own institution's travails. Would it go after the BBC the way it goes after the Catholic Church? Would it seek out victims of the alleged abuse and critics of the way historic child abuse seems to have been turned a blind eye to by the BBC, canvassing those angrily denouncing the morality of the BBC or claiming an institutional cover-up? Would Ed Stourton ask questions critical of the present leadership of the BBC, especially of the DG and the chairman of the BBC Trust (Lord Patten, trustee - like Ed- of The Tablet) for their handling of the affair?

The programme stayed very quiet on the issue throughout the 21st October edition, when the crisis at the BBC was already in full swing. By the 28th October editionSunday really had no choice but to discuss the scandal, given that it had been the biggest news story in the country's media for a couple of weeks by this stage. It was something it simply could not ignore. 

The test I pre-set (in my own head) for the makers of Sunday was to see if they would, somehow, twist it against the Roman Catholic Church. If they didn't I would be able to happily report that my leniency towards them in that earlier post (re charges of anti-Catholic bias, and relentlessness in their cover of the Catholic priestly abuse scandal in particular) was justified by their actions. If they did, then I would probably no longer be able to give them the benefit of the doubt. How did they fare? 

In the light of all that has gone before in that earlier post, what do you make of the way Ed Stourton announced the subject during the programme's introduction?:

"Welcome to Sunday. As the Archbishop of Westminster asks the Pope to remove Jimmy Savile's papal knighthood, we'll debate why big organisations can foster a culture of silence where evil can flourish?"

Straight in goes Ed with his attempt to tie the Catholic Church to the BBC's mess over child abuse. Unbelievable! (I almost spat out my cornflakes in surprise.) That one sentence really says it all - an attempt (however pre-deliberated) to shift the focus from the (unmentioned) BBC onto the Catholic Church and other big organisations. Not a good start from Ed, was it?  

Midway through the programme we got this taster from Ed of the (pre-recorded) closing discussion of the affair, which continued down the generalising path found in the introduction:

"What goes wrong in an institution to stop people reporting abuse of the kind Jimmy Savile has now been accused of? 

(Another voice:) 'All the institutions we're describing - and add in any business that's not a co-operative or a   partnership - and you have a totalitarian state with a monarch, aristocrats, robber barons and everybody else is a peasant.'" 

Again no use of 'BBC' there, as you will have noticed. 

The closing discussion is described on the programme's webpage like this:

"In the light of the Savile case we explore to what extent being part of an organisation influences an individual's moral choices, with guests Dr John Blenkinsopp, of Teeside University Business School, Professor Roger Steere - Visiting Professor of Organisational Ethics at the Cass Business School, and Donald Findlater, Director of Research and Development at the child protection charity the Lucy Faithfull Foundation."

That's a very revealing list of guests - someone from a child protection charity and two people whose expertise lies in the area of business ethics - largely reinforcing what seems to have been the programme's clear intention to shift the focus from the BBC onto large institutions in general, especially businesses and the Roman Catholic Church. None of the guests said anything specific about the BBC, and none were encouraged to do so by Ed Stourton.

What follows is a transcription of Ed's contributions to that debate. Please see what you make of them. Does he seem to be trying to steer the discussion away from the BBC and onto large organisations in general? Does he try to tie in the Roman Catholic Church again?: 

"How is it that the abuse of vulnerable people can go on for years in a big organisation without anyone saying anything about it? The question is especially difficult to answer when the organisation in question is supposed to be dedicated to public service. It's a question we've asked often enough on this programme over the past few years about the Roman Catholic Church in relation to the paedophile priests scandal. Now people are asking it about the BBC in relation to the Jimmy Savile affair. Dr John Blenkinsopp is the assistant dean of Teeside University Business School. Roger Steare is Visiting Professor of Organisational Ethics and Corporate Philosopher in Residence at the Cass Business School, and Donald Findlater is Director of Research and Development at the child protection charity the Lucy Faithfull Foundation. I asked John Blenkinsopp how a culture of silence can develop in an organisation."

"Well, standing up and being counted in circumstances like that, Professor Steare, requires what, in an old-fashioned way, I suppose one would call 'moral courage' and I think you've done some work trying to measure what a 'moral character' is?"

"Sorry, just to pick you up on that, do people notice when they are crossing that line or is it something, I don't know, that happens when you're half-asleep or concentrating on something else?"

"Well, I'd like to pick that up in a moment or two but, Donald Findlater, you have worked with, I think, both the Catholic and the Anglican Churches in these areas. Do the sort of descriptions of what happens that we've just heard  match what you've found?"

"Do you think, John Blenkinsopp, in this area it's right institutions like the BBC and the Catholic Church. I was just looking at a headline in The Guardian  - 'The BBC's real crime was to act like the Catholic church'?" 

"Well, let's talk about how we..or how you can combat these tendencies. Er..John Blenkinsopp, staying with you, what would you do to change the culture of a big organisation where something like this has occurred?"

"Turning to you, Roger Steare, it is a question of creating a democratic organisation, is it?"

"Donald Findlater, the news came through at the end of last week that the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, had written to the Vatican suggesting that Jimmy Saville's papal knighthood be removed posthumously. It does raise the interesting question of whether, when something awful emerges about somebody after their death, it undoes all the good that they did when they were alive?" 

"That, Professor Steare, does pose a slight challenge to your solution because you've got to have a management that's simultaneously open to democratic culture and is telling people quite clearly the way they should behave?"

"Roger Steare, ending that discussion."

Well, that was pretty blatant, wasn't it? Ed Stourton, at all stages of this edition of Sunday tried to generalise the issue, focusing it on business (which hasn't been implicated in a child abuse scandal!!) and appearing to want to smear some of what Chris Patten called "the tsunami of fifth" from the BBC/Savile scandal onto the Roman Catholic Church instead - including those two mentions of Savile's papal knighthood, one of which opened the programme! The edition gave no impression that the programme was anywhere near as keen to investigate allegations of paedophile rings at the BBC as it has been, on Ed's own admission, about historic priestly child abuse. It looks as if we could be in 'double standards' territory again. 

Maybe I was being over-generous in my earlier lenient view of Sunday's coverage of Catholic abuse scandal stories. This edition of the programme suggests there may be more to the charge of obsessive coverage of the issue than meets the eye, whilst also spotlighting its presenter's personal biases.

If you were wondering by the way, the Guardian headline referred to by Ed came from an article by Jonathan Freedland and, yes, you will have spotted that Ed didn't ask anything specifically about Chris Patten.  

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