The Newsnight debacle will be picked over by the media, but I wonder how many will sit down and think through the implications of what we Christians call ‘bearing false witness’? Reporting of the grilling given to George Entwistle, Director General of the BBC, by M.P.s yesterday sometimes gave the impression that he was being held personally responsible for every shortcoming of the Corporation since its inception. I understand that on BBC Radio 4 this morning he was again put through the mill by John Humphrys. What troubles me is that all the righteous indignation surrounding the Savile case and the role of Newsnight in that and the false accusations against Lord McAlpine may not be helping anyone.
I don’t get the impression that children will be any safer, or that the reputation of individuals will be any better protected. Ultimately, programmes like Newsnight and investigative journalism generally depend on the integrity and judgement of those who produce them. And that’s where my worry about bearing false witness comes in. Everyone has a right to his or her good name. In Britain, at least, we seem to have got into the habit of condemning, as loudly as possible, anyone who has not acted as we think they should, without really taking into account whether a case has been proved or whether the level of indignation being manifested is warranted or not. It is as if we quieted our own consciences by being vocal about the shortcomings, real or presumed, of others. It may make ‘good’ T.V. or gripping newspaper copy, but does it serve to advance truth and justice?
Today is the feast of St Leo the Great. He is the pope who wrote so movingly about the Incarnation, teasing out the mystery of God made flesh and its transformation of our human existence. If we really believe in what the Incarnation signifies, I do not see how we can be so careless about truth or justice towards our fellow human beings. I suspect that investigation into the BBC’s editorial failures will merely give the government of the day an excuse to clip its wings and everyone, British or not, will be the poorer. In the meantime, I think we could all usefully examine our own conduct in the matter of gossip, tittle-tattle and innuendo. Bearing false witness begins in the heart long before it reaches the lips.