BBC’s Newsnight almost accuses senior politician of pedophilia, then doesn’t

November 3, 2012

(Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

Newsnight, a popular program on British news network BBC, had planned to air a show on Friday night accusing a "senior" U.K. political figure of pedophilia. Iain Overton, who heads an independent investigative journalism outfit in London that contributed to the investigation, tweeted, "If all goes well we've got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political figure who is a paedophile." 

But, when Newsnight came on, it didn't reveal any names to its likely riveted -- and, judging by social media, furious -- British audience. Instead, it covered the fallout from a North Wales pedophilia ring that abused hundreds of children and was revealed in a 2000 government report. One victim said that one of his abusers had been "a leading Tory politician of the Thatcher era," and the BBC explained they hadn't gathered enough evidence to name him.

So what happened? We don't know, and it might be some time before we do. But U.K. media-watchers seem to be gathering two, non-mutually-exclusive hypotheses. 

The first is particular to the U.K.'s libel laws, which set a particularly high bar on the British press. Wall Street Journal social media editor Neal Mann articulated the view that Newsnight may have feared not clearing that bar. "Worth noting role British libel law plays in stopping #newsnight naming alleged paedophile, in many countries it would be different," he tweeted. "For all those thinking of just chucking a name out there you might want to think about what stopped #Newsnight naming... Libel law." This would be consistent with the Daily Telegraph's story on the Newsnight special, which reported just a few hours before the show aired, "A source close to the BBC confirmed the film about the politician was being looked at by lawyers."

The second theory, floated in the U.K. print media, gets a little more complicated.

A flashy, popular BBC variety show host named Jimmy Savile, who died in 2011, has for years been the subject of once-quiet police investigations of suspected child abuse. Those investigations -- which found "allegations by hundreds of women and at least two men that Mr. Savile used his fame and influence as a shield to abuse them as children" -- became public only recently. 

In late 2011, two BBC programs set out independently on two different retrospectives on Savile's life and his work at their network. One, a Christmastime special, was to be a tribute to his life and stardom. The second, by Newsnight, was to reveal the pedophilia investigation. The network, for reasons that are still unclear, killed the Newsnight investigation and aired the Christmas tribute. The BBC has been embroiled in controversy ever since, with several senior managers departing over the scandal.

It's difficult to point precisely to a connection between the BBC's Savile scandal and Friday night's Newsnight decision, other than the fact that both have to do with Newsnight investigations of alleged pedophilia. But it doesn't take too much imagination to see how the remaining BBC senior managers, worried about further highlighting their network's decision to kill the Savile investigation, would want to be extra careful about how they handle a story with similar themes.

But the network was forced into a remarkably unenviable position when Iain Overton made the pedophilia allegation public on Twitter a few hours before the show. In a sense, after that, it had no "right" choice: either the network air the name, and risk tarnishing the BBC's reputation if it turned out they had falsely accused a senior politician of pedophilia while refusing to level the same charge against their own celebrity-anchor despite greater evidence; or, they decline to name him, as they did, and invite accusations that they had protected the politician out of fear of worsening the Savile scandal. 

One member of Parliament, discussing the Newsnight story planned for Friday, told the Daily Telegraph that the BBC was in a "tail-spin" in the wake of the Savile scandal. Meanwhile, British social media and blogs are being flooded with speculation about the name of the politician that Newsnight was to have accused. Even if one of the names they're circulating turns out to be accurate, most of them will necessarily be false. It's hard to imagine what this experience must be like for the falsely accused.

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Olga Khazan · November 2, 2012