Saturday 17 March 2018

BBC admits it is investigating nine sex claims related to current staff

Under-fire BBC Director-General George Entwistle
Under-fire BBC Director-General George Entwistle

The BBC has revealed it is investigating nine allegations of "sexual harassment, assault or inappropriate conduct" among current staff and contributors as the fallout from the Jimmy Savile scandal continues.

The disclosure came after director general George Entwistle was urged to "get a grip" on his organisation during a hostile grilling by MPs about the broadcaster's handling of claims of sexual abuse by the presenter over several decades.

Condemning the "broader cultural problem" at the BBC that had allowed Savile's alleged behaviour to take place, he conceded the corporation had been slow to react to the emerging crisis.

He expressed regret that Newsnight did not press ahead with an investigation last year that included interviews with some of the former star's victims.

Newsnight editor Peter Rippon has stepped aside after a Panorama probe prompted to the BBC to say his explanation of why the show dropped its investigation into Savile was "inaccurate or incomplete".

Mr Entwistle said the scandal raised questions of trust and reputation in the BBC.

He told MPs: "There's no question that what Jimmy Savile did and the way the BBC behaved - the culture and practices of the BBC seemed to allow Jimmy Savile to do what he did - will raise questions of trust for us and reputation for us. There's no question about that.

"It is a gravely serious matter and one cannot look back at it with anything but horror that his activities went on as long as they did undetected.

"Of course, that is a matter of grave regret to me."

Mr Entwistle said the inquiry by Nick Pollard, former head of Sky News, into why the Newsnight investigation into Savile was dropped is expected to report back "in weeks".

He admitted Mr Rippon's blog account was "a matter of regret and embarrassment".

Mr Entwistle told the committee he had ordered an internal audit of the operation of the BBC's child protection policies and would report its results to the BBC Trust in December.

He said: "So far as I have been able to tell so far, Mr Savile prosecuted his disgusting activities in a manner that was very successfully and skilfully concealed.

"Experts in paedophile behaviour have pointed out that this is often the case... People build long-range plans to put them in contact with their targets. These things are institutionally, it seems, very difficult to deal with."

The director-general told MPs he believed the Newsnight investigation into Savile should have continued and said there had been a "breakdown of communication" between Newsnight reporters and the editor and he did not feel "confident" that he could get an explanation over what happened from within the BBC.

Conservative MP Therese Coffey branded "chilling" an email sent by Mr Rippon last November that said "our sources so far are just the women" and questioned whether the culture had really changed at the BBC.

"That phrase, on the face of it, isn't in the least defensible, of course," Mr Entwistle said. "I do believe the culture has changed since the 70s and 80s but I'm not convinced it has changed as much as it should have."

Mr Entwistle told the committee he had not spoken to any of those involved in preparing the Newsnight film.

He said he felt it was better to operate through the BBC "chain of command", so he could remain an impartial judge of any subsequent disciplinary case, and had left it to head of news Helen Boaden and deputy director of news Stephen Mitchell to deal directly with the programme.

Mr Entwistle said Ms Boaden had spoken to the Newsnight team only briefly during the investigation.

"I understand that Helen's only conversation with Peter in respect of the Newsnight investigation was to remind him that, just because Jimmy Savile was dead, it didn't mean that there could be any skimping in journalistic standards, and that the usual BBC standards would apply," said Mr Entwistle.

Mr Entwistle denied any personal failing, despite being pre-warned that the Newsnight investigation could have an impact on plans to broadcast a television tribute to Savile.

He gave the committee his account of a brief conversation with Ms Boaden in which she alerted him to the potential impact on the scheduled St Stephen’s Day programme.

Pressed by Mr Whittingdale on what he thought at the time the nature of the allegations against Savile might be, he said: "I don't remember reflecting on it. This was a busy lunch.

"It wasn't that I didn't want to know. What was in my mind was this determination not to show an undue interest."

Conservative committee member Philip Davies said: "It appears that your determination not to show an undue interest applies to everything at the BBC, from today's performance.

"It's not just a lack of curiosity - although it certainly is that - from somebody who has been a journalist, but given that you are putting on these programmes, surely you must have wanted to ask whether or not you can stand something up on Newsnight, is it still appropriate for the BBC to be putting on tribute programmes to this person?"

It emerged last night that a Newsnight reporter alleged that her editor tried to "kill" the Jimmy Savile story by making "impossible editorial demands".

Channel 4 News said it had seen an email sent last December by Liz MacKean in which she wrote: "Having commissioned the story, Peter Rippon keeps saying he's lukewarm about it and is trying to kill it by making impossible editorial demands."

She reportedly claimed: "When we rebut his points, he resorts to saying, well, it was 40 years ago ... the girls were teenagers, not too young ... they weren't the worst kind of sexual offences, etc."

In a letter to BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten, Culture Secretary Maria Miller warned the scandal had raised "very real concerns" about public trust in the corporation.

She said it was vital that the independent inquiries were "able to follow the evidence wherever it takes them".

In his response Lord Patten wrote: "You know how seriously the Trust takes the allegations surrounding Jimmy Savile and the need to maintain public trust in the BBC."

The peer said the inquiries would be "comprehensive and independent", but also delivered a thinly-veiled warning that the Government should not wade into the row.

"I know that you will not want to give any impression that you are questioning the independence of the BBC," he wrote.

Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale, a former producer and director of current affairs programmes for the BBC, suggested Lord Patten and Mr Entwistle may have to "fall on their swords".

He said: "Chris Patten is an old friend and a former parliamentary colleague for whom I have had a high regard but in his comment he has made it clear that he is out of touch, not only with the strength of feeling and concern in Parliament about the 'Savile affair' and related matters but, more importantly, with the strength of public revulsion at what has happened at Television Centre and with the corporate culture that, for the best part of 40 years, has apparently covered it up.

"Attack may be the best form of defence but in seeking to criticise a Culture Secretary who has not, ever, sought to challenge the independence of the BBC, he indicates how very little, within that corporate arrogance, has really changed.

"The 'Auntie knows best' line simply does not wash any more.

"BBC management, over far too many years, has sought to maintain an imperious disdain for criticism and it has become clear that successive directors general have, while happy to criticise others for not answering difficult questions, either turned a blind eye to criminal activities or have not known what has been going on on their own doorstep, which is also culpable.

"It is as if your favourite and respectable aunt has been revealed to be on the game and if Lord Patten is not able to grasp that, then I fear that not only the director general but also the chairman of the BBC Trust are going to have to fall on their swords."

Sir Christopher Bland, a former BBC chairman, said: "What it needs to do is await the result of the two inquiries because at the moment the noise of people jumping to conclusions is almost overwhelming and the truth is we don't know the truth.

"It needs to be absolutely forensic and ruthless in its search for the truth."

He added: "If you followed up every rumour or allegation about the BBC as chairman or director general, you would have no time for your proper job."

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