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BBC in crisis: What have we learned?

By Brian Cathcart, Special to CNN
November 13, 2012 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
  • BBC's Newsnight falsely linked a senior Conservative politician with pedophile activity
  • False report led to resignation of BBC's director general after just two months on the job
  • Cathcart: Newspapers not subject to same level of oversight as BBC
  • Leveson Inquiry report into phone hacking at UK papers due out in next few weeks

Editor's note: Brian Cathcart is a founder of the Hacked Off campaign, supporting press reform, and is also professor of journalism at Kingston University London. He tweets at @BrianCathcart.

(CNN) -- Journalism is not a perfect science: it is usually done under pressure and often in a confusing environment, so it is not possible to avoid the occasional mistake. This means that when we are judged as journalists it can't be by whether we make mistakes, but by what we do when they happen.

The BBC Newsnight report falsely linking a senior Conservative politician with pedophile activity was a very serious mistake, so what has the BBC done? Its regulatory process has swung into action and will establish what went wrong and what lessons are to be learned.

Brian Cathcart
Brian Cathcart

The director general, George Entwistle, has taken responsibility and resigned (though he has also taken an unsuitably large pay-off). Others on the staff may be disciplined, and new checks and balances may be introduced.

Alastair Campbell: Despite failings and clashes, I still back BBC

You can't ask fairer than that. Of course it would have been better if the mistake had never happened, but it has, and the BBC, whose journalism is regulated under both the BBC Trust and Ofcom, is doing the right things.

The press, meanwhile, has been enjoying the BBC's discomfort. Most of the national papers traditionally hate the BBC and would like to see it broken up, so this is a marvelous opportunity for schadenfreude.

More than that, it is a chance to frighten the BBC ahead of the publication of the Leveson report on the press in the wake of the phone hacking scandal, due in the next few weeks. One editor has already spoken with satisfaction of the likelihood that the BBC will feel less able to dwell on criticisms of press mistakes so soon after its own humiliation.

But the spectacle of the BBC beating itself up carries its own lessons for the press. When British newspapers make big mistakes they do not have any meaningful regulatory mechanisms, they do not learn lessons, and (with rare exceptions) nobody resigns or is even disciplined.

So it was in the case of Kate and Gerry McCann, whose daughter was abducted in Spain in 2006. The Daily Express and Daily Star papers admitted libeling them but there were no investigations, resignations or lessons learned. Later, eight papers admitted libeling Christopher Jefferies, a teacher whom they wrongly portrayed as a murderer. Again, no investigations, resignations or lessons learned.

And in the case of phone hacking by Rupert Murdoch's News of the World tabloid, the parent company tried to downplay what had happened for years, claiming it was the work of one rogue reporter when in fact it had happened on an industrial scale. If the British press industry had had its way over hacking there would have been no investigations, no resignations and no lessons learned.

BBC journalism has long been the most trusted in Britain, and I suspect it will emerge from the Newsnight affair as still the most trusted.

The press, currently so pious and pompous about the BBC's mistakes, faces the Leveson report at a very low level of public trust, and unless it learns to deal with its mistakes in a serious and transparent way, that is how it will remain.

The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of Brian Cathcart.

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