What MPs should ask about Savile
Lest we forget, this is a scandal first and foremost about whether a BBC star was a predatory paedophile abusing his status to gain access to the most vulnerable young people in Britain for decades. It is about whether a culture of inaction, silence and failure by some at the BBC, the NHS and the police allowed Jimmy Savile to continue unchallenged despite long held suspicions and even complaints. But this week – partly thanks to the civil war in the BBC that has led to the release of emails and personal testimony – the focus is also about whether the corporation failed last year when it dropped an expose of Savile and ran a ghastly tribute programme within days.
The new Director General George Entwistle, who was head of vision at the time the story was dropped so had no formal power over BBC News, faces the culture, media and sport committee this morning but the MPs on it may find it a frustrating experience. He almost certainly will not know the answers to all their questions. Here’s some of what they need to ask :
What were the full editorial reasons for Newsnight’s decision to drop the investigation into Savile?
We still don’t know. As the BBC’s Chief Executive has he found out? Or asked Peter Rippon? Or is that all being left to the inquiry?
Was Newsnight directly pressured to drop the Savile investigation?
MPs will want to know what the Head of News Helen Boaden told George Entwistle about the Newsnight investigation? Did he have any inkling or suspicion that it was about sexual abuse? Did he express any view? Is he aware of anything Head and Deputy Head of News Helen Boaden and Stephen Mitchell or anyone else in senior positions said to the Newsnight editor Peter Rippon?
Watch the video: Paxman’s no comment on Newsnight editor
Was there indirect pressure on Newsnight to drop the investigation?
MPs will want to know whether George Entwistle reacted in any way to put indirect pressure on Helen Boaden or anyone else? Is he now aware of what was said to Newsnight’s editor about the investigation by senior executives inside or outside the news division? Was the Newsnight editor put under any indirect pressure by reinforcing the high stakes of getting this one either right or wrong?
Why did the BBC run a tribute programme when there had been an investigation into Savile?
What reaction did George Entwistle have to what Helen Boaden told him about the Newsnight investigation? Did he not have any concerns about what Newsnight had been looking into, and whether it might affect the wisdom of a tribute programme? If not, why not? Should the news division have told the BBC executive board what the investigation had been about after it had been dropped, given the sensitivity of the allegation, so it could decide what to do about the tribute?
Did the BBC have a duty to investigate the claims further, even if the story was not strong enough to transmit at that time?
As a former producer and editor on Newsnight George Entwistle knows that stories that are not strong enough for transmission, or not legally watertight, or not satisfactorily proven may still be true or worth checking. Was it normal to drop a story and do nothing more? Given the exceptional nature of the story should those who knew what the allegations were have taken it further? Should the police have been informed? Was this discussed by the BBC executive board after it was told the Newsnight investigation had been dropped? If not, why not?
Why were inaccurate statements on the BBC website about the dropping of the investigation by the Editor of Newsnight allowed to go uncorrected for so long, and repeated by other BBC executives in answer to questions?
Did Liz Mackean and Meirion Jones contact Mr Entwistle or any other executive to raise their objections to what Peter Rippon had said on his blog? What was done about it?
Why were the concerns of the Newsnight team about public statements made by the BBC not addressed more quickly?
How did the DG react to Meirion Jones’ email saying his emailed statement to staff that the investigation was about the police investigation, rather than Savile being a paedophile, was wrong? Why wasn’t it corrected straight away?
Should BBC executives in future ask more questions?
It is the old dilemma: Was it cover-up or cock-up? The suggestion of cover-up demands that there are people who would suppress a story of terrible abuse and wrecked lives to save either a Christmas tribute programme, the reputation of Jimmy Savile or the reputation of the BBC. But none of the people involved in these decisions were involved in Jimmy Savile’s time at the BBC – for them there would have been no personal shame in exposing what went so badly wrong in the 1970s and 1980s. It doesn’t quite make sense. It would be a hard cynic who questioned the sincerity of George Entwistle’s televised reaction to the Savile allegations and apology to the alleged victims on behalf of the BBC.
The cock-up theory is more simple to imagine : that Newsnight’s Editor Peter Rippon took a decision to drop the story for a combination of flawed reasons, that various senior executives didn’t ask enough questions, didn’t realise the implications of the scandal, didn’t understand they had a duty to pursue such allegations beyond whether or not they made it onto the airwaves, and didn’t quite get to grips with what had happened quickly enough after ITV broke the story.
So far the BBC’s position has been that the Newsnight Editor Peter Rippon took an honest decision to drop the story for what he thought were sound editorial reasons. MPs tomorrow should ask George Entwistle whether he still thinks that. And when it comes to Peter Rippon did anyone in a senior position at the BBC, as Jeremy Paxman famously once asked of another scandal, “threaten to overrule him?”.
You can follow Krishnan on Twitter @krishgm