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Question of the Day
LONDON — Few seem to be enjoying the management meltdown at the venerable BBC more than Rupert Murdoch, the News Corp. chief whose rival British newspapers have been caught up in their own lengthy, embarrassing and expensive phone hacking scandal.
The British Broadcasting Corp. has moved into full-bore damage control, retracting mistaken allegations of child sex abuse that one of its programs made against a politician. That serious mistake followed the BBC’s earlier failure to report on widespread child sex abuse allegations against one of its biggest stars, the late Jimmy Savile.
“BBC mess gives (Prime Minister David) Cameron golden opportunity properly reorganize great public broadcaster,” Murdoch tweeted gleefully Sunday, apparently overlooking the fact that some of his own key former executives are facing criminal charges in the U.K.
The media mogul may be enjoying the spotlight on the BBC’s shortcomings, but both the British print press and the country’s broadcast media are near rock bottom in public esteem and are expected to face increased government restrictions soon on their autonomy.
A judge-led report into the phone hacking scandal, which exploded with the discovery that employees of Murdoch’s News of the World tabloid hacked into a kidnapped girl’s mobile phone, is due later this month. The scandal widened when scores of celebrities, sports stars and politicians said they, too, had been hacked. The tabloid folded, Murdoch’s media paid out millions in compensation and still faces scores of lawsuits.
Some expect the report by Lord Justice Brian Leveson, based on months of jarring testimony about wrongdoing by Murdoch’s reporters and others, will prompt the government to impose statutory regulation on the British print press, which up to now has been overseen by an industry watchdog.
The BBC’s problems could make such a harsh step more popular.
The incomplete and inaccurate BBC news reports, from a broadcaster often trusted for being impartial, have further lowered the public’s view of the media, said Phil Harding, former controller of editorial policy at the BBC.
But he warned other U.K. media to resist the temptation to take revenge on the broadcaster.
“If you really tear into another journalistic organization, what you are going to do is … undermine public confidence in journalism and in areas that the press ought to be interested and concerned about,” he said Monday at a Society of Editors conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Harding pointed to the upcoming Leveson report as a good reason why the print press should be cautious about attacking the BBC, which holds a privileged position in British society as a “public service” broadcaster.
Last week, more than 40 Conservative Party members of Parliament signed a letter calling for state regulation of the press, which newspaper proprietors fear. The lawmakers argued that the BBC’s independence has not been compromised by answering to OFCOM, the government’s broadcast communications regulator, and that the print press would not be muzzled if subjected to government regulation.
But being overseen by OFCOM did not prevent the BBC from airing incorrect allegations about child sex abuse, or from declining to air allegations against one of its own hosts. Savile, who presented children’s shows for decades, is now suspected of abusing countless underage girls.
Bob Calver, a journalism professor at Birmingham City University, said the reputation of the British media has hit a low point.
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