Back to basics for the BBC


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The Independent Online

Why not start at the very beginning, just like Maria in The Sound of Music? Let's focus on the letter A, and the gaping hole at the centre of the Newsnight/McAlpine/BBC/This Morning/Twitter debacle that can be summed up in one word – accountability, or, rather, the lack of it.

Have we lost touch with the reality that every time we do something, our actions impact on others? In many businesses, we sign contracts requiring us "not to bring the company into disrepute". So when George Entwistle was selected as director-general, he knew precisely what level of commitment was required. Friends say he feels entitled to hang on to his fat payoff, because decades of unblemished service at the BBC have been blemished by the failings of others. Hardly the point. On landing the top job, he shouldered the ultimate responsibility, and his subsequent lacklustre performance did the BBC no favours.

Similarly, all the many and complicated layers of BBC production executives responsible for Newsnight's content failed twice, once when they shelved the Savile programme, and secondly when they permitted the unsubstantiated material about child abuse in Wrexham to be aired without telephoning Lord McAlpine first.

Whichever way you look at it, they were accountable. We have to trust them to make sure that what's broadcast is accurate and fair. Chris Patten is also accountable to licence-payers, and he appointed Mr Entwistle, so his future must be in doubt. As for the mob slander that took place on Twitter, it demonstrates the emotional disconnect between users and followers.

Social media allows people to react instantly as news is breaking, but it separates users from the true impact of their actions. So when Sally Bercow and George Monbiot tweeted pointed remarks about Alistair McAlpine to more than 120,000 followers, they thought they were being smart and chatty. Twitter users don't regard themselves as accountable, but Lord McAlpine says he is suing those who defamed him. On the PM programme that night, one man said he thought this was "a disproportionate action", proving to me at any rate, that Twitter users lack any shame.

The DPP says it might be appropriate to prosecute only Twitter users who have large followings – but why? Surely if you slander someone that's an offence. I come back to the notion of accountability, and ask why so many people have decided to junk it in modern life.

Pillpopping UK

New research from Nice, the National Centre for Clinical Excellence, indicates a huge number of us suffer from headaches caused by … the painkillers we take to deal with headaches! More than a million people are locked into a potentially harmful cycle, taking over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen in increasing amounts, often doubling the dose. Doctor say this can produce a condition known as medication overuse headaches, brought on by the painkillers actually triggering pain. A couple of years ago, I stopped taking them altogether, and now take one only occasionally. Half the stated dose seems to work just fine.

A timely new free exhibition at the Science Museum shows new ways that pain management is being developed which doesn't rely on pills. Almost six billion painkillers were sold in the UK last year, so the impetus to come up with alternatives is pressing. The exhibition uses personal stories to explore how scientists are investigating pain management, including one using tarantula venom, and another which shows a patient who feels phantom pain from his amputated limb using gaming technology to trick his brain. You can even play a computer game to fight pain. Sadly the curators couldn't resist calling it Ouch!

On the hour

Last week, BBC news bulletins and daily current affair shows were dominated by disaster stories about the BBC itself, and, with fortuitous timing, last week the second series of Abi Morgan's The Hour kicked off, set in a BBC 1950s weekly topical show with a new horribly controlling head of news, played with enormous relish by Peter Capaldi. The show looks great – smoky Soho nightclubs, showgirls and plenty of booze and fab costumes – but the two female leads seem miscast. Romola Garai is unconvincing as the programme's producer. Why didn't the role go to Anna Chancellor, who is the right age and far more authoritative? Ben Whishaw is another fluffy choice as a roving reporter who returns to be lobbed in front of the cameras as a presenter. Media-watchers could spot plenty of parallels between the channel's problems – competing against the brash new ITV while delivering big stories on a shrinking budget – and Newsnight's current woes. But good telly drama has to connect with the mainstream audience, not just the luvvies. At the moment The Hour still looks like a bit of a clever in-joke that's all surface and smart references. I want characters I care about.

Train strain

There are moves afoot to allow train operators to operate a new third class. The Department for Transport points out that this will not mean carriages with no seats, but a service that's the rail equivalent of premium economy. Why do we need another class at all when most stations can't take longer trains? Third class has already arrived if you travel on "Great" Western trains. I recently went to Penzance on a Friday afternoon. The train was so crowded you couldn't get to the toilets, and arrived late because, said the train manager, "this service is just too popular" and it takes ages to get everyone on and off as only a few carriages fit on most of the platforms. Journey time: six hours. On Sunday, there was no trolley service and the toilets didn't flush. Lovely!

Acting up

Danny Boyle made an impassioned plea for local theatres last week, as many face huge cuts in their funding from local authorities and the Arts Council. He described them as the "modest cousins" of football, pop music and the cinema and said they offer an irreplaceable experience, one that had been instrumental in awakening his interest in drama. Like amateur companies, they play a vital role in local communities. In Yorkshire, the Middlesmoor panto (staged only every two years, sadly) in my tiny village hall is the highlight of the social calendar. The sight of the publican and assorted farmers in drag is a riot. Just down the road, the Pateley Bridge Dramatic Society is 75 years old this year and shows regularly sell out. From Tuesday it is staging Alan Ayckbourn's How the Other Half Loves, and a couple of years ago performed a musical, The Dam Play, telling the story of the huge reservoirs built at the head of the valley.