Why did the BBC allow Savile tribute programmes?

17 Oct 2012  |  Raymond Snoddy 

Raymond Snoddy on the conspiracy theory surrounding the Savile and Newsnight inquiries and the possible implications for BBC director-general, George Entwistle.

Maybe appointing Lord Justice Leveson to look into the standards and practices of the press was a mistake. One of those rushed appointments.

Why did no-one think of Dame Janet Smith, the former High Court judge? After all she did a good job of working out how many patients Harold Shipman killed so she would have been just right to look into how many hacks had behaved badly and brought their calling into disrepute.

Things come around and eventually the right decision gets taken. Dame Janet seems totally ideal to find out how many young women 'Sir' Jimmy Savile assaulted and who knew about it when at the BBC. Like a large number of Shipman's patients Savile is dead but retired light entertainment producers and former BBC executives will now dread the call from Dame Janet.

In a rather different context Nick Pollard, the former head of Sky News can be trusted to get to the bottom of what seems at first glance to be the extraordinary decision by Newsnight to drop its investigation into Savile's activities. Or as culture secretary Maria Miller misspoke - "inappropriately pulled" the item.

As the chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, puts it in his coldly formal "Dear George" letter on the appointments by the executive board: "These are senior independent figures, each with high levels of experience in their respective fields, whom we can rely on to conduct the inquiries with insight and rigour."

Indeed. Can anyone be better than Dame Janet at sniffing out where the bodies are buried at the BBC and as for Nick, the former senior ITN executive, there is the additional irony that the Newsnight decision ended up presenting a major scoop on a plate to ITV. It's is a bit like The Times passing on the MPs expenses scandal and sending newspaper glory in a neat parcel to the Daily Telegraph. Only worse.

Let's leave the forensic work on the corpse of Jimmy Savile to Dame Janet and concentrate on the big live question - Newsnight.

The questions thrown up by any curious mind are obvious and have considerable implications for the BBC and for George Entwistle, the new director-general, who has scarcely had time to warm his chair.

The conspiracy theory goes like this. It is December and Newsnight had this detailed investigation into Savile ready to go with the script written. What a story and yet it is 'pulled' or if you are not the culture secretary let's use the less pejorative term 'dropped' for 'editorial reasons'.

At the same time BBC Vision, then run by one George Entwistle, decides to go ahead with generous tribute programmes on 'Saint Jimmy' even though by his own admission he had been told Newsnight had been investigating Savile.

It sounds like an open and shut case. The BBC wanted to stick to the orthodox version of history and perpetuate the Savile myth and Peter Rippon the Newsnight editor was 'leaned on' in some way to desist. Even under the conspiracy theory, naturally lapped up by the press detractors of the BBC, this would never have been anything so crude as an instruction, merely a nod and a wink...'it would be rather unhelpful just before Christmas if...'

There is only one problem with the conspiracy theory however splendid and plausible. It may not be right.

Nick Pollard will want to start from scratch but he could do worse than read this week's blog by Kevin Marsh, former editor of the Today programme and until recently head of the BBC College of Journalism.

Marsh, who we must assume has the contacts to speak in detail either to the Newsnight editor or his senior assistants, says he is as convinced as he possibly can be that Rippon was not leaned on and that the piece was nowhere near ready to be aired.

As reported by the Mail on Sunday a police letter supplied by one of the informants was almost certainly a fake and the story that Newsnight was investigating was not about Savile's activities but whether the police had failed to investigate the allegations. They were convinced by the police argument - obviously wrong - that there was insufficient evidence. Christmas was approaching and Newsnight was about to go off the air.

'The Rippon is innocent' account does have two potential flaws. At the very least Newsnight gave up on an incendiary story because it didn't fit the template of what a Newsnight story should be - in effect handing it to the opposition. And if it was true that the story was merely dropped because it was not complete enough to broadcast at the time why was it not pursued with renewed vigour in the New Year?

And if it wasn't a Newsnight story why wasn't the information passed to Panorama or another BBC factual outlet?

In short, why did the BBC throughout the first eight months of 2012 do absolutely nothing and leave the record showing nothing but Savile tributes? After all ITV managed to find enough evidence to broadcast a documentary.

Marsh's 'Rippon is innocent' argument contains a real sting in the tail for the BBC director-general. He believes the real question is not why the Newsnight editor pulled the Savile investigation. Marsh believes the item was dropped for legitimate journalistic reasons.

The real question, according to Marsh, and he is not alone, is why the head of BBC Vision allowed tribute programmes on Savile to go ahead while knowing that Newsnight was investigating the former BBC presenter. Could any senior broadcasting executive and one who just happened to be a former editor of Newsnight be so incurious as not to ask what the investigation was about and whether it might affect the tribute programmes?

Nick Pollard has to look not just at the Newsnight editorial decisions but the interactions between Newsnight and the decisions taken by BBC Vision. They too made editorial choices.

Kevin Marsh comes to a chilling conclusion. He hopes that Entwistle's decision to set up the current inquiries "doesn't turn out to be his biggest and last as director-general". The piece is headlined: "Newsnight, Savile and the DG's real and present danger."

Could it be that the BBC will finally get, rather sooner than expected, what many people thought it should have had all along - its first woman director-general?

Monday, 17 October 2012, 14:57 GMT

George - we hardly knew you.

Seems a bit harsh to be pre-empting his departure three weeks into the job. His actual handling of the hottest ever potato has been fine so far. Instant apologies. Appropriate enquiries. He might now look foolish for not stopping the tributes but that still feels like wisdom after the event on the part of his critics.

If it was all to go pear shaped wouldn't it be a better opportunity for a 'safe pair of hands'. Step forward universally popular, inside TV Bush House and far beyond, your old mucker and school friend, Greg Dyke. Now I happen to think that would be a very good idea. None since Wheldon have understood as well as Dyke how to balance creatives, journalists and the public love with the politics and shoe-string economics of Aunty. You and your laudable "first female DG". Are you sure you not running a stalking mare...?

Sean Dromgoole
Some Research
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