On 23 May, the BBC Parliament channel devoted an entire day’s programming to archive coverage of the 1979 general election. This included footage of Robin Day interviewing the hulking figure of Cyril Smith, who had just been returned as the MP for Rochdale.

Their conversation is fascinating for two reasons. First, a few days after it originally aired 41 years ago, Private Eye magazine alleged that in the 1960s Smith sexually abused teenage boys in a hostel he co-founded. These claims had appeared initially in an underground magazine called the Rochdale Alternative Press. Smith died in 2010 without facing justice, though in 2012 the Crown Prosecution Service admitted he should have been charged with committing multiple sexual offences during his lifetime.

The second reason the interview is of interest is that during it, Smith defended the election strategy of his then-party leader, David Steel. The Liberals, reeling from the Jeremy Thorpe scandal, had a disastrous result in 1979, losing a million votes and two seats.

This year, Steel quit the Liberal Democrats and stood down from the House of Lords after an inquiry concluded he “turned a blind eye” to claims of Smith’s child abuse. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse also accused Steel of an “abdication of responsibility”. Through having such contemporary repercussions, the Smith scandal therefore arguably lives on – not least in the lives of those whom he abused. They have given evidence about their ordeals which are chilling to read.

Yet despite the obvious offence – and fear – it must trigger in Smith’s victims to see his face on TV, the Corporation has refused to remove this programme from its iPlayer service.  A BBC spokesman has said that broadcasters archive is a permanent public record and its existence is in the public interest. He added: “We would not alter the historical record of an election programme.”

Compare this justification – which some might say is brave in the current climate – with the recent news that the comedy show Little Britain has been expunged from the BBC’s archive. The BBC’s reasoning for erasing it was that “times have changed.” Faceless, unknown forces within the BBC have decided that its stars, Matt Lucas and David Walliams, mocked various minorities 15 or so years ago who, in 2020, should be treated with more respect.

The BBC’s position therefore boils down to this: it thinks it is acceptable to show an interview with Cyril Smith, who ruined the lives of many children through his despicable sexual crimes; but it is out of the question to air Little Britain, a programme intended to amuse through parody. It is small wonder that the online campaign to defund the BBC now has over 72,000 followers.

Many licence fee payers will struggle to accept this contradiction. Either both programmes should be accessible via the BBC archive or neither one should. But the BBC cannot pick and choose who it will offend and who it won’t offend. To do so would be impossible, for obvious reasons.

When it comes to the BBC, this type of inconsistency is no surprise. In 2011 and 2012, I spent months pursuing it over allegations that Jimmy Savile abused children on its premises. BBC2’s Newsnight programme had first investigated these allegations, yet a source told me at the time that the resulting film had been suppressed.

Worse, the BBC then broadcast tribute programmes praising Savile. I devoted hundreds of hours to this story, latterly aided by an MP whom a BBC spin doctor even smeared grotesquely when he became too persistent. I was palmed off with a series of half-truths and non-denial denials.

Eventually the BBC set up an inquiry costing £3 million into why Newsnight’s revelations were blocked. This just made things worse. There were no sackings; whoever axed Newsnight’s film was not named; and the inquiry claimed, falsely, that then-BBC chief Mark Thompson knew nothing of the Savile allegations in 2011.

The BBC has never been held to account for any of this. The Savile affair might be said to prove the BBC’s rigid adherence to establishment views – including showing Cyril Smith on the iPlayer. It certainly dealt a shattering blow to its journalistic reputation.

Smith and Savile were friends, as it happens. Since the Savile scandal, the BBC has been careful not to show programmes featuring Savile or another BBC children’s presenter, Rolf Harris, who was edited out of the BBC archive after being jailed in 2014 for five years and nine months on twelve counts of indecent assault against four teenage female victims during the 1970s and 1980s.

Some might say the obliteration of the past is always wrong. What is clear is that by removing Little Britain the BBC has got itself into a terrible tangle.