"The Human Centipede in media form" was how the comedian David Schneider described it on Twitter – a recursive nightmare in which the BBC found itself investigating its own failure to investigate. "Normally we report the news rather than being the news," said Jeremy Paxman when doorstepped outside Newsnight's new offices in Broadcasting House. And at 10.30pm last night the centipede took its tightest twist yet, with Newsnight covering its own embarrassments on BBC2 while Panorama added to them on BBC1.
Newsnight had a five-minute lead, Paxman acknowledging that it had been a bad day for the BBC and adding "it can at least take some comfort from the fact that the BBC did most of the damage". What followed was at times surreal: a forensic detailing of the BBC's "worst crisis in 50 years" (one man's opinion hardened into fact by regular repetition) and a discussion in which balance was effectively surrendered. "Newsnight's editor, Peter Rippon, declined to be interviewed for this programme," said Paxman before conducting a panel discussion in which the mood was chiefly hostile.
As Paxman reminded us that child abuse was at the heart of the story, Panorama was giving a voice to the victims that Peter Rippon had effectively muted. Shelley Jofre's report drew on the work that Liz MacKean and Meirion Jones had done and added further, grimmer revelations: the suggestion that a paedophile ring had been operating in Television Centre, evidence that the rumours about Savile's appetites had been persistent and widespread, the allegation that the promise of a Jim'll Fix It badge had been used to lure a boy into his dressing room.
It was the sight of the BBC's new Director-General being questioned by one of his own reporters that drove home the true paradox of this unprecedented hour and a bit of broadcasting. It was this: only by further damaging its own reputation could the BBC even begin the process of mending it. Last night's film was grim and depressing – but it was also very difficult to think of any other organisation, media or otherwise, that would have exposed itself to such a painful self-laceration. It's not over by a long stretch but Panorama may have started to restore some trust.
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