Governance and accountability at the BBC: the lessons from the Savile affair

The Jimmy Savile scandal has illuminated deep cracks in the BBC’s governance. A culture of immunity and blame shifting must now be faced head on for the sake of the victims and the future of the corporation. 

David Elstein
29 October 2012

There has been massive media coverage of the BBC’s mis-steps over the revelations about Sir Jimmy Savile’s sexual assaults on underage children.

The BBC failed to broadcast a report on the subject that Newsnight had prepared last December. Ignorant of its contents, the BBC’s Director of Vision (i.e. all TV channels), George Entwistle, failed to remove tributes to Savile from the BBC Christmas schedules. Despite stories in six different newspapers in early 2012, the BBC Trust failed to notice the internal row over the dropping of the report, and so failed to ask the relevant questions of the three internal candidates for the post of Director-General. (The Trust’s chairman, Lord Patten, shrugged off questions as to why he had not read his newspaper cuttings by saying there were too many to read: diddums!)

Entwistle was duly appointed D-G. Less than three weeks later, an ITV documentary on Savile, compiled by a former police advisor who had worked with the Newsnight team, was broadcast, covering very similar ground to the abandoned report. Entwistle was forced to address BBC staff as to why allegations he described as “appalling” had not been shown by Newsnight.

Adding to the shock that ITV had ventured where the BBC had feared to tread was the disclosure that Savile had systematically used his BBC outlets, Top of the Pops and Jim’ll Fix It, to recruit sexual targets, and BBC premises to commit his assaults. That one of the BBC’s top current affairs programmes had known all this and documented it, but that the BBC had not broadcast the report, had not even informed the police of its findings, and had broadcast celebratory tributes to this criminal, came as a shock to the public. How the BBC has handled the subsequent crisis has exposed great weaknesses in the BBC’s structure and governance.

On Tuesday, October 23rd, Entwistle was quizzed for two hours by the assorted MPs who make up the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Most of them could barely contain their sense of deep incredulity at his remarkable lack of curiosity about the Newsnight item once he had been informed that Savile was being investigated.

When the Director of News and Current Affairs had told him – briefly – about the investigation, he made a point of not asking her what it was about, for fear of transgressing into the editorial realm, which he though sacrosanct. In any case, this 10-second encounter had taken place at a “busy” industry awards lunch.

He also told the MPs that, after the story was dropped, there was no “process” within the BBC for him to discover its contents, and avoid the profound error of broadcasting the Savile tribute programmes.

Here was a prime example of purported BBC accountability. Yet try as they might, and ask as many questions as they could think of, all that the MPs could do was expose a culture at the BBC which encourages senior executives to avoid knowledge in order to evade responsibility. Entwistle genuinely believed that he had done nothing wrong himself.

The core of the problem was this. Immediately after the death last year of Savile – for decades, as much a part of the BBC’s public image as Sir Bruce Forsyth, of Strictly Come Dancing, is today – a Newsnight reporter pitched a programme idea to his editor. As a child, he had often visited his aunt, who ran an approved school for teenage girls called Duncroft House.  Savile had been a regular visitor to the school, taking girls for rides in his Rolls Royce, and inviting busloads of them to BBC studios to make up the audience for Top of the Pops, which he regularly presented.

The producer had been struck by the incongruity of this arrangement, and had heard reports that Savile sexually abused underage girls. With the help of a former police officer who had specialized in abuse cases, he and his team assembled 10 interviews, some with people who claimed to have been abused by Savile or other celebrities, others with those who witnessed or strongly suspected criminal behaviour.

As the item approached possible transmission, the BBC press office was notified, and prepared a detailed plan to deal with the potential aftermath. The editor of Newsnight, Peter Rippon, informed his immediate superiors – the Director of News and Current Affairs and her deputy – of what was in the pipeline.

Subsequently, for reasons which are not clear, Rippon went cold on the item, and ordered that work should cease. He later claimed that the story had really been about why the Surrey police who had investigated such claims about Savile in the past had not been able to persuade the Crown Prosecution Service to launch a prosecution. In the absence of proof of “institutional failure” within the Surrey police or the CPS, he dropped the item.

The Newsnight investigation team were puzzled by this development. The fact that there had even been a Surrey police inquiry had only emerged six weeks into the team’s own research. The reasons for it not leading to a prosecution were not surprising: uncorroborated allegations, made long after the event, by girls who at the time had been in care and were now reluctant to give evidence at trial, were of limited probative value in the face of blank denial.

However, the team felt that the stories they had been told were powerful and convincing, and formed part of a broad pattern. With Savile’s death, there was no longer any possibility of his being prosecuted, but equally, there was no prospect of a libel suit.

The team suspected that there were ulterior motives for Rippon’s decision to drop the story. The reporter was aware that a high profile tribute programme for Savile was in the Christmas BBC1 schedule, and warned Rippon that his film might force a schedule change; but there is no evidence that pressure from above was applied on this basis.

However, Rippon conveyed to the team that his direct bosses had warned that, even though there was no danger of a libel suit, as Savile was dead, that could not justify dropping normal BBC standards of credibility in relation to the broadcast of serious criminal allegations.

This was an odd formulation. Of course, the Newsnight team had to satisfy themselves that their interviewees were credible; but television is not a court of law, requiring allegations to be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Equally, the danger of a libel suit might persuade BBC lawyers to veto transmission of an item otherwise worth showing; but neither that danger, nor its absence, in itself could be decisive in judging the credibility of interviewees.

The divisions inside Newsnight proved very damaging for the BBC. An attempt to put a lid on the growing suspicion that the story had been dropped in order to allow tribute programmes to go ahead backfired badly. Ten months after his fateful decision to shut down the item, Rippon wrote a lengthy blog in which he tried to demonstrate that the quality of the Surrey police investigation had been the starting point of his team’s investigation. This was taken up by Entwistle and other senior BBC executives, as well as by friendly surrogates who appeared on BBC programmes when executives were not made available. Fatally, it was taken up by the Trust’s chairman, who derided the whole idea that there had been some improper intervention: the story had been dropped for good “journalistic” reasons.

The Newsnight reporter immediately emailed Entwistle to tell him that Rippon was demonstrably wrong, not just in terms of the relevance of the Surrey police, but also on other key facts, such as the claim that all the victims interviewed had already made statements to the police – which was not true of Newsnight’s main witness, Karin Ward.

It took more than two weeks before the BBC put right all those mis-statements, by re-writing the blog entry. It seemed even this belated retreat was driven by the imminent broadcast of a special edition of Panorama exposing the errors, shown the night before the Commons session. When asked by the MPs why it had taken so long to correct such a misleading public statement, Entwistle could only say that he was used to relying upon the editor of a programme to be the most reliable source of information about it: thus pushing Rippon under the bus.

That Patten has repeatedly intervened to support the erroneous BBC management response to the affair shows that he does not understand the role of an arm’s length regulator. It is inconceivable that Ofcom would make the mistake of intervening in this fashion in some crisis affecting a commercial broadcaster.

In fact, the Savile crisis has exposed other cracks in BBC governance.

Patten is often described as the BBC’s chairman, but actually he just chairs the BBC Trust, which regulates and monitors the BBC executive. The chairman of the BBC management board is the Director-General: a state of affairs much criticised by corporate governance experts. It is the management board which runs the BBC.

There was a determined effort by Jeremy Hunt, when he was the responsible minister, to persuade the BBC to allow the senior non-executive member of the management board to chair it. That was resisted by the outgoing D-G, Mark Thompson, and also by Patten (who perhaps did not want any other person in the mix who might be labelled as the “BBC chairman”).

Now, because Entwistle’s role in the Savile affair is a point at issue, it is the senior non-executive member of the board, Dame Fiona Reynolds, who has taken responsibility for the two independent inquiries that the BBC has called into being: one into how and why the Newsnight item was dropped, whilst the tribute programmes were left in the schedule; the other into the culture and practices of the BBC in the period when Savile was a prominent presenter.

Reynolds is the only one of these who has maintained a sensible silence whilst the storm has raged. Patten has confused his role with that of previous chairmen of the BBC Board of Governors. Each of his radio interviews so far has only served to add to the confusion about what is going on and who is in charge.

Neither of the announced inquiries has a remit that covers the present chaotic behaviour: they both look backwards – respectively, to the 2011 period and to the 1970s and even earlier.

Yet any student of the BBC recognizes immediately the pattern of behaviour displayed in this crisis. First, ignore the story; then, denial; then, find a cover story; when that collapses, find a scapegoat; do everything belatedly and unconvincingly; finally, risk paying a huge price in terms of public esteem.

We can see the same behaviour in the Hutton/Gilligan affair over the sexed-up dossier (which eventually cost the BBC its then chairman and D-G), and in the Brand/Ross affair (where the BBC ignored the alarm signals for a week, until it was too late).

The BBC’s behaviour stems from a mixture of arrogance and a sense of immunity. The lengthy and dogged resistance to calls for reductions in excessive executive pay, and for disclosure of talent earnings, was par for the course. The refusal by the Panorama team responsible for a programme on child labour to be interviewed individually by a representative of the BBC Trust investigating a complaint by Primark was another example (the Trust upheld the complaint, concluding that a crucial piece of undercover footage was most likely faked).

I have observed another complaint against a BBC programme taken through the Ofcom process (Ofcom can rule on unfairness in BBC programmes, but not on lack of impartiality): the BBC dragged its heels for 22 months, denied any wrong-doing, accused the complainant and his lawyer of lying, and offered not a word of personal apology to the complainant, despite being forced by Ofcom to broadcast a lengthy apology.

Perhaps the most dismaying aspect of the Savile affair was the apparent assumption that “it would all go away”: which might have proved correct if the ITV documentary had not been shown.

Now the BBC must make an imaginative leap to show willingness to be accountable. It needs to invite the people who claim to be victims, and their legal representatives, to take part in a process that minimizes hassle and cost, whereby claims can be cross-checked with tapes of Savile programmes, and all relevant BBC documents can be declared – rather like the belated decision by News International to set up a compensation fund for victims of phone-hacking and a transparent legal process, under the supervision of a High Court judge, to settle all claims.

This will give the victims a voice, a forum and – where appropriate – compensation. There is no need to await the outcome of any other inquiries. This process tacitly accepts liability: given the use of BBC premises, the involvement of BBC programmes and the participation in alleged criminality by people hired by the BBC, this seems wholly reasonable.

Soon, the BBC will be broadcasting its annual Children In Need appeal. It would be galling to proceed with that event without having taken every step possible to make good the harm done to children decades ago, in which the BBC was complicit, whether advertently or not. If George Entwistle wants, finally, to get the BBC in front of this story rather than constantly lagging behind it, he knows what to do.

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