What Constitutes an Institution (Or: Is the BBC Literally an Institution?)

Jimmy Saville was a BBC star. He was also, apparently, a serial predator on children over several decades. Only death revealed his extensive crimes. There could be many Jimmy Savilles in the world, in many countries.

The Australian royal commission will investigate “institutional” responses. While the terms of reference may define just what is an institution, it is, like so many definitions, not entirely specific. No doubt, there will be many attempts to challenge the commission’s definition of a particular institution as being a true institution. A successful plea under this argument can be very important. It could mean that the organisation can avoid scrutiny.

The BBC could argue that it is not an institution in the sense that it has no official role in the care of children. Many of the programs are outsourced by media organisations, so they might not be responsible, for example, for a program involving children where the children were abused by other actors. The relevant institution could well be deemed to be the casting agency. Here, the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) and network television could argue along the same lines.

For some organisations, the definition is fairly explicit in that they primarily exist to involve children in programs, for example youth clubs, scouts, schools, etc. Here, institutional response matters will clearly be subject to findings by the commission. But what of the BBC? How far does its duty of care extend when its employee crosses the line? Should it have a process to ensure none of its employees have predatory intentions?

What if the star abuses children in his spare time? In such cases, is the BBC an “institution” or merely just another peripheral organisation?

Questions can be raised concerning the need to tighten up definitions pertaining to when a given organisation passes a threshold into becoming an institution under the terms of reference.

To the general public, many of these considerations will appear to be trivial or irrelevant. No-one would be suggesting that the BBC is involved in child abuse, nor even in condoning or protecting it. For “true” institutions for children, the public relations focus will be mostly on reducing damage to reputation. For some organisations, such as the BBC, this will not really be an important focus.

The real focus for these non-institutional organisations will be the matter of liability and compensation. This is a whole different kettle of fish which the Australian Prime Minister and her advisers do not seem to have taken on board in a clear and definite manner when setting up the commission.

It will be an issue to watch when formal hearings commence later in the year.

TOMORROW: The Catholic Church’s new PR unit

That’s all I can say

Lewis Blayse (né Lewin Blazevich)


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