Editorial: A necessary sacrifice

We should not allow the BBC’s shame to distract us from the important point

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The Independent Online

The most important thing, as the BBC implodes from the top down, is to keep the focus on the suffering of people who were sexually assaulted as children, and whose testimony has been belittled or disbelieved for decades.

However, it is hard to ignore the BBC's impulsion to be the story rather than the messenger. By distracting public opinion from the pursuit of justice for the victims, the corporation has probably made it less likely that anyone will get to the bottom of what happened in a care home in North Wales, and in the many other cases of sexual assaults on vulnerable children.

What seems to have happened at the BBC is that, having dropped a report on Jimmy Savile, it sought to compensate for its error by pursuing the North Wales story with undue haste. The reasons the Newsnight report on Savile was never broadcast remain unclear. There were doubts about the strength of the testimony of the alleged victims, but the BBC has not yet escaped the suspicion that this investigation was embarrassing to it at a time when another part of the organisation was working on a tribute to the man.

What is extraordinary, though, is that George Entwistle, the Director General of the BBC, who has rightly stood down, had no idea Newsnight was working on the North Wales story. Despite his taking the heat for Savile within days of his appointment, he showed "an extraordinary lack of curiosity", in the words of John Wittingdale MP, chairman of the media select committee. He had no idea Newsnight was working with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Or that the bureau's reporter, Iain Overton, had suggested on Twitter that a "senior political figure who is a paedophile" would be named on the programme. Mr Overton and Phillip Schofield, the ITV presenter who handed a list of alleged paedophiles to the Prime Minister on live television, recklessly stirred speculation.

The "senior political figure" was not in fact named by Newsnight, but in a world of social media it was bound to come out. Which it did on Friday. Through all this Mr Entwistle seems to have been happily oblivious. He had no idea that there was a problem until Newsnight's witness, Steven Messham, issued an apology later on Friday for mis-identifying his abuser.

Even as we demand to know where Lord Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust who appointed Mr Entwistle, has been, we should not allow the BBC's shame to distract us from the important point. The North Wales case, in particular, must be investigated as thoroughly as the passage of time will allow. There is no doubt at this newspaper that previous inquiries were inadequate. The Independent on Sunday investigated in the early 1990s, and today we report some of the shocking cases of the damage done by sexual and physical assaults on children in care homes years ago, but it needs the sort of response that the Home Secretary is now belatedly making.

The Government has done the right thing in setting up several new inquiries. These must start listening to the victims, assessing their evidence sympathetically but critically. Our first responsibility to the victims is to establish the truth. The BBC's greatest disservice is to make that more difficult. It has diverted the righteous anger of public opinion, which is needed to keep the Government to the mark. And, by embarrassing Mr Messham, it has made it harder for other victims, already terrified of testifying against their abusers, to come forward.