Newsnight: David Aaronovitch debates free speech and universities


One of the truly great things about being a student used to be the exposure university life gave you to all sorts of views — absurd and otherwise — and being able to decide for yourself what to make of them. Students were once known for their dedication to free speech and academic freedom, epitomised by the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley, 1964-65.

In 2015, students are more renowned for the practice of trying to ban anyone they believe to have dangerous views in order to protect fellow tutees, whether it’s removing the Sun from the shelves or refusing airplay to Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. We witnessed this tendency most recently with the petition to ban Germaine Greer from speaking at Cardiff University because of her “misogynistic views towards trans women”.

Index on Censorship chairman David Aaronovitch appeared on BBC Newsnight on Thursday to debate free speech at universities with Toke Dahler, a representative of Leeds University student union. Dahler said that “it’s up to students” to decide where the threat lies, and it is the student union’s responsibility to then “make sure that students feel safe and feel welcome”.

For Aaronovitch, student unions should be places of lively debate and discussion, rather than places where students are “hermetically sealed away behind a form of intellectual rampart within which they can feel safe”. The problem with Dahler’s view, said Aaronovitch, is one of definition. What do we mean by safe? Who exactly feels unsafe? And what do they feel unsafe from?

The full interview is available on BBC iPlayer until 28 November. You can watch it here (starts at 27:40).

BBC stumbles, but will it fall?

You couldn’t make it up – and any 21st century Evelyn Waugh’s hoping to match his tales of journalistic folly must be wondering how art or the comic novelist can outdo reality. As George Entwistle becomes the second BBC Director General to resign in the last decade over the credibility of a key BBC news story, is the BBC really in crisis? Or can a rapid new appointment stop the rot?

In a nutshell, the BBC first spiked what by all accounts was a piece of very serious journalism on alleged child abuse by a leading national figure, Jimmy Savile — leaving rivals ITV to broadcast the story first — and then it let through a piece of shoddy journalism on child abuse wrongly implicating, albeit anonymously (’til Twitter got to work), another national figure. While some have suggested the second, lax editorial signoff two weeks ago may actually show that caution over the Savile story was appropriate, this looks like the wrong conclusion.

Only some insiders know the full story of both process and content. But we do know that in the Savile case substantial evidence had been gathered, and five women were interviewed on camera about their allegations. Whether there was pressure from above, fear of libel, a casual attitude to child abuse involving young teenage girls or all these and more, the decision not to broadcast looks wrong — and has led to a storm of criticism since the story broke at the start of October. The BBC’s subsequent crisis management was inept — Entwistle sounding inadequately informed and turning in a weak performance before MPs, while Newsnight editor Peter Rippon, who shelved the programme, had to amend his blog post on how the decision was taken to correct inaccuracies.

A month after the Saville fiasco broke, Newsnight then broadcast its programme interviewing Steve Messham who alleged child abuse at a North Wales home in the 1970s by a senior Conservative politician. On Monday evening, the BBC issued a summary of its internal report confirming that Newsnight neither showed Messham a photo of the politician — nor put the allegations to that politician.  Lord McAlpine – mentioned in a series of tweets by a range of people after the Newsnight broadcast — has threatened legal action. Messham came out publicly after the programme and said McAlpine was not the person whose photo the police had shown him in the 1990s, and apologised. The BBC also apologised. Entwistle resigned, as did the director of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Iain Overton, the Bureau having been involved in making the programme.  As the summary BBC report says some “basic journalistic checks were not completed.”

Some suggest a libel action from McAlpine against Newsnight may fail, as the peer was not named in the programme. But wherever the legal case goes, the journalism looks shoddy and the editorial judgement in broadcasting the programme a bad call.

Perhaps one of the few brighter points of this dismal tale is that the most senior people in the two organisations resigned so fast — a lesson that ought not to be lost on hesitant politicians, heads of banks and others in recent years who have failed to step up and take responsibility for failures on their watch, or only reluctantly, slowly and after continuous pressure. But the large pay-off announced for Entwistle has rather diminished some of the impact of the honourable rapid resignation.

In a trenchant statement, Newsnight’s leading presenter, Jeremy Paxman blamed the post-Hutton inquiry BBC culture of appointing “biddable” people and “bloating” management at the expense of programme budgets. This sounds like the NHS, that other British icon, where years of changing reforms have repeatedly seemed to prioritise managers over medical staff. But if biddable managers is the problem, that can explain the Savile case — not taking a risk — but not the McAlpine case — taking a risk in spite of inadequate journalistic output. And it is how the BBC learns the lessons of these two opposite failures that will determine the eventual outcome of this crisis.

In the short term, the BBC will surely ride the crisis out. Chris Patten, heading up the BBC Trust, is right to be moving quickly to appoint what will have to be a top quality, credible new Director General.

But the BBC cannot afford another scandal of this sort soon. And the danger must be that serious, high quality, challenging journalism will be held back. If a battered, bruised and risk-averse BBC chooses to avoid any repetition of the second Newsnight weak journalism scandal, or holds back on anything risky as a second line of defence, then the crisis will have done real damage. If the BBC loses its courage on decent investigative journalism, this might create a false sense of calm for a while, but at the cost of undermining its reputation in the longer term. Steering between the twin hazards of weak editorial control and risk averse editorial control will be the test for the BBC and its next Director General.


Libel: BBC concedes to Trafigura

royal courts
Index on Censorship and English PEN today have expressed dismay that the BBC has conceded the libel action brought by toxic waste shippers Trafigura in the High Court. We believe this is a case of such high public interest that it was incumbent upon a public sector broadcaster like the BBC to have held their ground in order to test in a Court of law the truth of the BBC’s report or determine whether a vindication of Trafigura was deserved.

Trafigura: Newsnight to apologise

BBC Press statement

The BBC has played a leading role in bringing to the public’s attention the actions of Trafigura in the illegal dumping of 500 tons of hazardous waste in Abidjan in 2006. The dumping caused a public health emergency with tens of thousands of people seeking treatment.

Last month, Trafigura agreed to pay victims of the waste around £30 million in compensation, having previously paid compensation of over £100 million to the Ivory Coast government.Trafigura brought libel proceedings against the BBC over one aspect of its reporting: claims that the waste had caused deaths, miscarriages and serious long term health effects. An official Ivory Coast Government report into the incident had stated that people had died because of the waste and a recent United Nations report also found that there was strong prima facie evidence linking the waste to a number of deaths.

Last month Trafigura agreed to pay victims of the waste around £30 million in compensation for sickness suffered. However, the experts in that case were not able to establish a link between the waste and serious long term consequences including deaths. In light of this, the BBC acknowledges that the evidence does not establish that Trafigura’s slops caused deaths, miscarriages or serious or long term injuries. Accordingly, the BBC has withdrawn those allegations and has agreed to broadcast an appropriate apology on Newsnight. The BBC will pay £25,000 to a charity of Trafigura’s choice.