“Heads are bound to roll.”
The battle-hardened Fleet Street cliche is getting a
great deal of exercise in the press these days, and it’s applied as often as
not to the media’s own institutions.
Last year, the headlines reveled for weeks in the head-rolling
that followed the telephone hacking scandal, the one that killed the News of the World, Rupert Murdoch’s sex-obsessed
Sunday tabloid, in the process finishing off the career of Murdoch’s son and
heir-apparent James – among others.
Politicians are in the kennel, too. Just last week, the government’s chief whip in
the House of Commons was driven from office for allegedly calling the policemen
who wouldn’t let him cycle through the main gates of 10 Downing Street a bunch
of ‘plebs’. The same attack dogs are now
baying for the scalp of Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, not for
cocking up the economy, but for traveling in the first-class carriage of a
train with a second-class ticket (a dereliction he corrected immediately).
And let’s not leave out the police, already tarnished
by their association with the hackers. Today,
yet another senior Yorkshire copper has
resigned for offences related to the 15th April 1989 Hillsborough football
Heads are rolling alright. They seem to be tumbling downhill like a
rockslide. And each time I pick up a
newspaper I find a new ‘special report’ into some ministerial cockup. Or, calls for a fresh investigation into some
event long past. Or, a judicial enquiry
into this, or a parliamentary hearing into that.
Now it’s the turn of the BBC, the venerable old ‘Auntie’
of British broadcasting, which finds itself in danger of being institutionally engulfed,
by the ever-expanding Jimmy Savile sex scandal.
George Entwisle, the BBC’s director general, has done
himself no favours by giving the impression that he is either covering up or
has been simply overwhelmed by events. Neither
recommends him to a post he has held for only three weeks.
Regardless of the outcome of various enquiries about
to get underway, including the BBC’s own – not to mention the parallel police
investigations – he now stands at the head of what may become a very long queue
for the next tumbrel.
In each of these and other recent scandals the media
coverage has been comprehensive and efficient – impressive but in many respects
tendentious and interminable. Moralizing
pundits and the general public have united in their outrage.
All of which makes me nervous, though admittedly for
reasons that I have yet satisfactorily to fathom.
Opinion in these matters tends to divide into
two. The majority view demands extreme forms
of retribution from authority figures who have supposedly failed society in
their responsibilities. The minority
position, while not always in violent disagreement with the majority, is to wonder
whether the responses have been absurdly, and perhaps dangerously, disproportionate. It is to the latter view to which I hesitantly
I say hesitantly, because I remain torn between
standing up to applaud the assiduous efforts of journalists and other guardians
in defending society’s virtue, and sitting on my hands wondering whether, by
the time they have finished forensically tearing some of our once revered public
bodies apart, there will be much left to revere.
As a Guardian
columnist, Simon Jenkins, writing today in a similar vein to mine, put it
“…nothing will satisfy the political community but a body in the street”. In the Savile case, Jenkins omitted to
mention, it will probably be many bodies.
Do we really want a bloodbath? Witch hunts are always set in motion by the
ostensibly pure of heart, but in finding victims everywhere they usually leave
society nowhere – or at least, nowhere good.
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not a corner man for the
perpetrators. James Murdoch struck me as
an amoral dolt. The chief whip probably met
his fate not because he was rude to the police one evening but because he had
been rude to colleagues over an entire career.
And, yes, blame ought to be assigned to those coppers who were negligent
at Hillsborough, but when is enough more than enough? It was 30 years ago.
In the BBC scandal, Jimmy Savile is, or was, the real villain,
not poor hapless George Entwisle. On the evidence of the Savile affair he’s not
the man for job, but my guess is that he’s toast in any case.
The head that ought to be rolling is Savile’s, of
course but he’s beyond becoming “a body in the street” because he’s already a
body in the ground.
There may well be criminal charges of child abuse, and
rightly so, but those will result from appropriate police procedures. Let’s hope they don’t make a dog’s breakfast
Meanwhile, let’s not turn the Savile story, and every
other passing scandal, into the Second Fall of the British
Empire. There are a few
other problems in the world we might want to ponder.