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November 14, 2012

Crises Overshadow BBC's 90th Anniversary

by Selah Hennessy

This week marks 90 years since the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, produced its first radio transmission in 1922.  But the landmark anniversary has been overshadowed by a series of crises that have rocked the broadcaster in recent weeks, toppling the director-general and bringing the publicly-funded body's future into question.  

Stewart Purvis, a former chief executive of ITN, a rival to BBC news, said the BBC is currently facing a challenge unlike any it has dealt with in its 90-year history.
 
"The theme that has run throughout the history of the BBC has been about the relationship between the BBC and the government of the day - there have been a number of points in history when there has been tension," noted Purvis. "This is not about that actually.  It is absolutely about the relationship between the BBC and its listeners and viewers. And that is why some people think it is the biggest crisis there has been, this crisis of trust."

Sex scandal

​​The current crisis began in October when allegations emerged over a longtime BBC presenter, Jimmy Savile.  Police now believe Savile may have abused as many as 300 people over four decades, including underage participants on BBC programs.  The BBC was criticized for failing to make public its own investigations into Savile.

It emerged that in 2011, shortly after Savile's death, the BBC had been due to broadcast a program about sexual abuse allegations against the former presenter.  But the show was shelved and instead tributes to Savile were aired.  It took a British commercial broadcaster, ITV, to air the allegations one year later.

Those events had already raised questions about decisions being made at the BBC.

Then early this month its news program Newsnight aired a show falsely accusing a British politician of child abuse.  It later emerged the politician had been misidentified and Newsnight made an unreserved apology.  

Purvis said the mistakes show that some major changes need to take place at the BBC.

"I think the fact is the current crop of BBC leaders are not up to the job," he said.  "There will have to be a new regime at the BBC and if that regime is any good it will win back the trust."

Firings

Already heads have rolled as a result of the crisis.

​​After just 54 days in the job director-general, George Entwistle resigned his post.  The head of news and her deputy have also stepped aside.

In answer to a question during a BBC broadcast interview, BBC Chairman Chris Patten said his organization has to reform. 

"If you are saying, does the BBC need a thorough structural radical overhaul, then absolutely it does and that is what we will have to do," Patten acknowledged.

On the street, opinion about how this has affected trust in the BBC appears to be mixed.

"I think we should value the BBC.  It is a fantastic institution," one woman said.

"We do not really trust them as much as we used to," admitted another BBC viewer.

Now, the BBC appears to be working hard to win that trust back.