Chaos and 'faffing' at BBC as Jimmy Savile scandal detonated
Too many chiefs who never talked to each other and a historic culture of sex with teenagers disclosed in series of inquiry interviews.
Lord Patten, the BBC Trust chairman, has described the "chaotic" response of managers during last year’s Jimmy Savile scandal, accusing them of “frantic faffing about” as the crisis unfolded.
BBC staff in different departments were “on different planets” and the corporation “had more senior leaders than China”, who never held meetings together, he said.
During a 90-minute appearance before Nick Pollard, who was commissioned to write an independent report into the Savile affair, Lord Patten gave a colourful account of the BBC’s shortcomings, including a “dysfunctional” editorial team at Newsnight and a “silo” culture between departments.
Mr Pollard, a former head of Sky News, published more than 3,000 pages of evidence, mostly interview transcripts and emails, on which his report was based.
The 19 witnesses whose evidence was published included Jeremy Paxman and Kirsty Wark, both Newsnight presenters; Peter Rippon, its former editor; and Helen Boaden, the BBC’s former head of news.
The BBC began burying evidence of Savile’s paedophilia within hours of his death on Oct 29, 2011.
Whistleblowers tried to post comments below a story about Savile’s death on the BBC’s website, but were censored.
George Entwistle, the former director-general, told Mr Pollard that an external company paid to filter comments had been warned of a possible “hoax”.
One visitor to the website wrote: “He was a paedophile. You may not like the truth but he was. It will all tumble out now. The little grope here, little touch there. One of my best friends in 1972 was molested by this creep Savile. He was never the same again. Killed himself in 1985.”
Another tried to post: “Sorry to rain on the parade of all the well-wishers, but he was infamous in Scarborough. I would not have been letting my son sit on his knee ... obnoxious creep.” None of the comments were published.
Mr Entwistle said: “The moderators had been put on alert in advance for some sort of Savile hoax with which the online pages had been troubled before.”
He referred to a transcript of a supposed out-take from Have I Got News for You in which Savile was confronted with sex abuse allegations, but said the transcript was a hoax.
He said: “That might be part of the story about the preconditioning of their minds about how to treat critical material … I wonder to what extent that had actually oversensitised them to stuff that wasn’t a hoax.” The comments were “never referred to the BBC at any level”.
Genesis of a disaster
On Oct 31, 2011, two days after Savile’s death, Meirion Jones, an investigative reporter and producer for Newsnight, sent an email to Peter Rippon, headed: “Jimmy Savile – paedophile.”
In it, he said that Savile, a disc jockey who also hosted Top of the Pops and Jim’ll Fix It on BBC television for decades, used to molest girls at Duncroft School, where Mr Jones’s aunt was headmistress, and said that some of the girls were now prepared to talk.
He pasted in extracts from a blog written by one of Savile’s victims in which she described how visits from the celebrity meant “pleasant food and extra cigarettes” but also being “mauled and groped” by him.
Mr Jones began working on an investigation, which was “briefly” put on a list of potentially risky projects circulated among departments, called the Managed Risk Programme List.
On Nov 17, it was listed as “investigation by Liz MacKean [a Newsnight reporter]” and the risk was identified as “legal/taste”. By Nov 28 it had been taken off the list.
Asked why it was risky on “taste” grounds, Mr Entwistle said Savile had just died and “it was on people’s minds”. He added: “I would imagine that people were anxious about the notion of how quickly you could pile in after that.” When it was suggested to Mr Entwistle that there was no “legal” problem as Savile was dead and therefore could not be libelled, he replied that “there was no capacity for fast and loose” just because the man was no longer alive.
The 'silo’ culture
Lord Patten described a “silo” culture at the BBC, which was evidenced when the Savile film was taken off the risk list.
Sara Beck, who worked for Steve Mitchell, the then deputy head of news, emailed Liz Gibbons, deputy editor of Newsnight, on Nov 22, 2011 to say: “Just so you know, have taken Jimmy Savile off for now and will put back on when it’s imminent. The document goes quite far in Vision and we thought it might be best to keep it off just for now.”
Mr Entwistle suggested that the women did not want people in BBC Vision, responsible for all television channels, to know about the Savile investigation.
Mr Mitchell and Mr Rippon knew that tribute programmes were being planned in the Christmas schedule and Mr Entwistle could not “dissent” from the suggestion that they left Savile off the risk list to avoid any pressure from Vision to drop the investigation.
A word in George’s ear
Helen Boaden, the then head of news, told Mr Entwistle during an awards lunch on Dec 2 that Newsnight was investigating Savile.
She told Mr Pollard it was “highly probable” that she said the investigation was into Savile’s paedophile past – something Mr Entwistle has always denied.
In an email to the BBC’s head of communications after the scandal broke last year, she said: “Are we giving the impression I absolutely didn’t tell George about the content of the Newsnight investigation? If so not quite true. I have always said I can’t remember, but of course it is highly probable that I did mention that is about sex abuse.” She told Mr Pollard: “At that point we absolutely thought it was [going to be broadcast] and that he needed to think about … the Christmas schedule.”
Ms Boaden said she “had never heard any dark rumours about Jimmy Savile”.
She told Peter Rippon that the Newsnight investigation should be just as thorough as if Savile was still alive. Mr Entwistle said this was not “inappropriate”, adding: “He, Savile, seemed to be somebody who a lot of people loved and liked and therefore a journalistic piece about him making allegations as serious as these would be one you would have to be able to stand by.”
At one stage Dec 7, 2011 had been pencilled in for the screening of the Savile investigation, which would feature interviews with victims and publicly expose him as a paedophile for the first time.
But Mr Rippon got cold feet after being told that one of the strands of the film, an accusation that the Crown Prosecution Service had decided not to charge Savile following a Surrey Police investigation because he was too old, had turned out to be untrue.
Mr Entwistle said he was now struck by the “lack of agreement about what the [Savile] film was actually about” between Mr Rippon and Mr Jones and reporter Ms MacKean.
Mr Jones warned in an email that if the film was shelved the BBC would be accused of a “cover-up” and risk “another BBC scandal on the scale of the Queen or Jonathan Ross and similar damage to our core value of trust”.
He also warned that rivals were on the scent: “We know News International are all over this story. Some of the victims were called by Sky.”
Peter Rippon told Mr Pollard he felt “lukewarm” about the Savile film because: “It was a combination of a feeling in my stomach that these stories can be very difficult to pull off.”
What Mark Thompson knew
Mark Thompson, who was director-general at the time the Savile investigation was shelved, dismissed concerns about the Newsnight film as a “fairly small thing”.
Mr Thompson was told about the investigation by BBC journalist Caroline Hawley during a Christmas drinks party in 2011. He said: “The phrase that stuck in my mind is, 'You must be worried about the Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile’.”
Mr Thompson said the “casual remark” had not worried him. “He was someone who had not broadcast regularly for many, many years. So there was no corporate alarm bell going about this.
“If I had known, or suspected, that Savile was a paedophile or a rapist, I would have acted on that information. I had never heard any rumours at all, if you like of a dark side of any kind, sexual or otherwise about Jimmy Savile.
“I just thought this was a fairly small thing of what felt like an almost random remark. I enquired about it and received what I thought was adequate reassurance.” He said would have been more worried if the investigation had been into a current member of staff.
Helen Boaden told Mr Pollard: “Newsnight has been a troubled programme for some time. Newsnight is a bit like an old colonial power, with a lot of old colonial attitudes … refusing to accept a more modern world with less resource, a digital challenge and at times with an almost contemptuous and sneery attitude to the rest of [BBC] News.” Meanwhile Mr Entwistle suggested there had been a “critical breakdown in trust” between Mr Rippon and Mr Jones which “might go some way to explaining the treatment of the investigation”.
A chaotic response
The fact that the BBC had shelved its film was reported in newspapers at the beginning of last year, but it was only when ITV screened a documentary about Savile’s paedophilia last October that the BBC went into meltdown, leading to the resignation of Mr Entwistle. Lord Patten, who took over as chairman of the BBC’s governing body in May 2011, suggested that there had been “frantic faffing about” in Mr Entwistle’s office as he tried to get a grip on the scandal.
He said the BBC’s management culture was largely to blame, as when he joined “they had more senior leaders than China. The senior management team that the previous director-general had was 25 or 27. They never met”.
He said people working in light entertainment and those in news were “on different planets” and there should have been ample checks and balances to prevent the Savile scandal. “In this case you have a director-general, you have a head of news, you have somebody responsible for current affairs and you have an experienced editor of a television programme and things still get horribly screwed up.”
A culture of sex with young girls
Dame Janet Smith, who has been asked to produce a separate report into the culture of sexual harassment at the BBC over the decades, asked Mr Entwistle about the issue of office affairs.
He told her that since the Savile scandal broke, “I’ve been involved in conversations with people, for example [redacted] who have said that if you were [redacted] back in the 60s or 70s, there was an awful lot of sex going on, you know, a lot of [redacted] marriages got broken up because they were getting involved in extra marital sex [redacted] and this kind of thing.”
Dame Janet said: “That would be grown up to grown up, adult to adult.”
Mr Entwistle replied: “Not necessarily, not necessarily … possibly adult with quite young women was my sense… there were attitudes to girls of around the age of consent that didn’t make an awful lot of distinction between a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old, say.”