Jimmy Savile and the BBC: The Pollard Report

The BBC commissioned a £2 million investigation into why it failed to broadcast what it knew about Jimmy Savile, possibly the most famous TV personality of late 20th century Britain, and instead transmitted tributes to the serial child abuser after he died. The report identified catastrophic mis-management and will do the power of good if its recommendations are carried out but... unanswered questions remain.   

David Elstein
27 December 2012

On December 19th, the BBC released the results of two inquiries.

The first, undertaken by Nick Pollard, analyzed why BBC2’s flagship current affairs programme, Newsnight, had failed last December to broadcast a report alleging sexual abuse of minors by Jimmy Savile – once a leading presenter of BBC entertainment programmes – and then misled the public about why the item was abandoned.

The second inquiry was internal, and addressed how Newsnight came to broadcast this November a libellous and journalistically flawed item about child abuse many years ago in North Wales, which led to former Tory politician Lord McAlpine receiving an abject apology from the BBC, and £185,000 in damages.

Taken together, the two documents offer a devastating insight into the BBC’s insular culture, its weak management, its dismissive attitude to external criticism, and its chaotic response to the furore that erupted in October 2012, after ITV had broadcast a documentary covering very similar ground to the Newsnight effort that had been abandoned ten months earlier.

There was suspicion that the Newsnight item on Savile had been suppressed so as to avoid embarrassment over the fact that four separate tribute programmes to Savile were due to be broadcast on radio and television over the 2011 Christmas period. Pollard dismisses this charge, which – if it had been substantiated – would have been utterly damning for the BBC.

In truth, it had never seemed plausible, and Pollard points to the fact that the Savile item continued to be pursued even after Newsnight’s editor, Peter Rippon, had discussed the possible impact of its transmission on the BBC1 Christmas schedule with his immediate bosses, Helen Boaden, Director of the BBC’s News division, and Stephen Mitchell, her deputy. Boaden told him to ignore the scheduling issue.

However, some mystery still attaches to those discussions.

On the day Rippon and Mitchell met to discuss the Savile item, and its possible impact, it was agreed that Mitchell would alert Boaden to warn the Director of Vision (the BBC’s curious title for the person who oversees all domestic TV channels), who was then George Entwistle. For some reason – which Pollard fails to explore at all – there seems to have been no parallel attempt to alert the Director of Audio and Music (another odd BBC title for the person in charge of domestic radio channels), Tim Davie, who also had Savile tributes in his Christmas schedules.

On the same day, Mitchell removed the Savile item from the Managed Risk Programmes List (the MRPL), the warning mechanism that alerts all relevant BBC departments to the possible transmission of a programme or story that will have wider impact, either within the BBC or beyond.

Pollard quizzed Mitchell at length on why he had taken this action. Mitchell offered two possible reasons, both of which Pollard rightly dismissed as implausible. When Pollard pressed Mitchell further, “Mr Mitchell said (as was a common feature of his evidence) that he could remember virtually nothing of this meeting. I found the frequency with which Mr Mitchell’s memory failed him surprising”. Even Mitchell’s boss, Boaden, could not understand the removal: “it didn’t add up,” she told Pollard.

However, there was a telling email from Rippon’s deputy, Liz Gibbons – who had throughout vehemently opposed the making of the Savile item, on grounds of taste – noting that the removal from the MRPL was “sensible”, given “Vision issues surrounding Saville (sic)” which “Peter and Steve talked about”. It would seem that she thought the Christmas schedule issue had put paid to the Savile item, and that Mitchell may have been of the same view.

Two days later, on November 23rd, Mitchell prompted Boaden to speak to Entwistle (but apparently not to Davie). Pollard says she “clearly” tried to do so, yet the only attempt she made was to wander across to his office a couple of times, only to find he was not there. Why she did not email him, or even phone him, is inexplicably not explored by Pollard.

Eventually, Boaden offered a brief word to Entwistle at an industry lunch they both attended. She spoke elliptically about a possible Newsnight item on Savile that might affect Entwistle’s Christmas schedule. He did not inquire further: he did not want to look as if he was interfering in the independent operations of BBC news. He assumed he would be told more if he needed to be.

Soon afterwards, Rippon dropped the story. Having been excited to learn there had been a police investigation into the alleged abuse documented by reporter Liz McKean and producer Meirion Jones, he was then disappointed to hear the matter had gone no further, for lack of sufficient evidence. Some victims had told the team that it was Savile’s age and infirmity that had halted the police inquiry. Jones and McKean could never find a letter from the police to that effect, and Rippon closed the story down as a result.

Pollard thought Rippon had made a mistake; and the fact that ITV was able to broadcast a compelling account of Savile’s paedophilic behaviour, despite the decision not to prosecute, supports his judgement.

What particularly puzzled Pollard was that Rippon refused even to view the interview recorded with one victim which later proved to be the most dramatic element in the Panorama programme that was mounted as a belated investigation into why Newsnight had failed to pursue the story.

Pollard found Rippon’s stated aversion to viewing interviews – on the grounds that their emotional content might influence his rational judgement – “a strange thing for a television news journalist and editor to say”. Yet perhaps there is a clue in Rippon’s background. He had spent almost his entire career in radio: editing Newsnight was his first job in television.

McKean and Jones were angered by Rippon’s refusal to allow them to continue gathering evidence on Savile. Jones specifically warned that the BBC would suffer reputational damage once it became public that it had preferred to broadcast tributes to Savile rather than give a platform to a group of women who not only claimed to have suffered abuse at the hands of Savile and his associates, but to have done so after being bussed to BBC premises so as to be part of the audience for BBC programmes.

Even before the end of 2011, journalists started asking questions, led by Miles Goslett, a freelance initially inquiring on behalf of The Independent. The attitude of the BBC press office and hierarchy was that leaks from within Newsnight were responsible for these approaches. Jones, in particular, was suspected of leaking. One BBC press officer was so incensed that he told colleagues he would “drip poison” about Jones to press journalists. Boaden told Pollard that there was a long history of suspected leaking by Jones.

Jones denies all charges of leaking. Meanwhile, Goslett and other journalists were routinely brushed off, sometimes by improper use of the BBC’s exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act (a phenomenon familiar to many including at openDemocracy who have sought to use the FOIA to extract non-exempt information from the BBC).

The Sunday Mirror in January, The Oldie and the Daily Telegraph in February, and four other national newspapers (the Daily Mail, The Sun, The Guardian and the Daily Mirror) in the first quarter of 2012 reported that the BBC had suppressed a report on sex abuse by Savile. Some noted the involvement of BBC premises. Some noted the Savile tributes. Some noted the failure to send details of alleged offences to the police.

Surprisingly, Pollard does not pursue in any detail the failure of those in charge of the BBC – the BBC Trust, chaired by Lord Patten, and the BBC executive board – to respond to this coverage. The BBC Director-General, Mark Thompson, claimed to Pollard that all these stories “passed him by”. He was “busy” – even though his impending replacement had been announced in January, and a significant part of his forward-looking workload became his successor’s responsibility, not his.

A former chairman of the BBC, Sir Christopher Bland, has argued that ploughing through 150 pages of press cuttings every day can be quite time-consuming. As it happens, all cuttings these days are distributed electronically, with 8 or 9 “tabs”, one of which brings together corporate stories about the BBC: it would have taken just two clicks to find any of these stories. Boaden – who at least knew some of what Newsnight had discovered – told Pollard she “bitterly regretted” not inquiring further.

Thompson claims to have heard nothing specific about the Savile allegations until after he left office in mid-September. He concedes that a BBC reporter, Caroline Hawley, had asked him at a Christmas party in December 2011 what he was doing about the abandoned Newsnight item. He claimed to Pollard that he “followed this up with the news division”, but there is no evidence that he did so, and Pollard mysteriously did not pursue the point.

Thompson volunteered to Pollard that he found “striking” the failure of any of his staff to bring the Savile allegations to his attention: a breathtaking insight into the cosy insularity of executives at the very top of the BBC – what Pollard describes as “a culture of waiting to be told”.

Even more eye-opening is Thompson’s claim not even to have seen the text of a threatening letter that outside lawyers sent on his and Boaden’s behalf, responding to a detailed request for information from The Sunday Times (for whom Goslett was then working). Their warning of possible legal action was sufficient to deter the newspaper from publishing its planned story, in September 2012. Thompson approved the sending of the letter, sight unseen.

By then, the BBC must have known that the storm was about to break, as both Thompson and his designated successor, Entwistle, had been put on notice by ITV as to the contents of its impending broadcast. Yet throughout the nine months, the BBC press office were largely in the dark as they fended off inquiries. This is because they were dependent on an account of the Newsnight item provided by Peter Rippon, who relied on his faulty memory of what his team had uncovered.

Rippon’s briefing for the press office made a series of errors, the most misleading of which was the suggestion that it was the failed inquiry by the Surrey police that Newsnight had been investigating, not Savile himself. Pollard attributes Rippon’s errors to “frustration at this story not going away”.

It would have been easy to correct these errors if the news division had not sunk into dysfunctionality – or “meltdown”, as Pollard says. Distrust of Jones meant that no-one – from Mitchell downwards – tried to check the accuracy of Rippon’s memory. What Pollard describes as a “stand-off” between Jones and McKean on the one hand, and the BBC press office, lawyers and news management on the other, led to catastrophe.

After the ITV broadcast had exposed the BBC’s flank, Rippon wrote a blog entry – at the urging of Mitchell – that only succeeded in compounding the problem. Pollard is repeatedly critical of Rippon: “not for the first time, Mr Rippon had got the wrong end of the stick”; this was “an important fact that Mr Rippon had failed to grasp”; “this was a major mistake that proved difficult to correct – it is not easy to understand how Mr Rippon held this view”; “the preparation of the blog can only be described as chaotic”; “[the chaos] continued after the blog was published”.

Disastrously for the BBC, Mitchell allowed the blog to become the official BBC position, which was used in media interviews by Entwistle and Patten. The focus on the Surrey police was, in Pollard’s view, Mitchell’s responsibility. Rippon’s “error [was] compounded by Mr Mitchell” – there were “significant failings in the managerial oversight”. Mitchell refused to deal with Jones, as did Entwistle. Pollard chides them with being too bureaucratic in their “adherence to rigid management chains” and their failure to break out of “silo mentality”.

Pollard criticises Entwistle for having “taken a long time to take any real control of the issues” – there was a failure of leadership for weeks. With the news division’s press officers more intent on having Meirion Jones fired than finding out exactly what had happened on Newsnight, it was not surprising that, after ITV broke the story, “the BBC’s management system proved completely incapable of dealing with it”; there was “a critical lack of leadership and co-ordination”.

It is hard to see how Entwistle could have survived the Pollard verdict. The pernicious BBC culture is one he inherited; Lord Patten even told the media that Entwistle was committed to reforming it; but from his first glancing involvement to his belated fumbling engagement, he proved himself a prisoner of the BBC system, unable to provide leadership when it was most needed.

As it was, he triggered his own downfall in the course of his piecemeal response to the crisis. The demonstrable collapse in trust of the BBC forced him to abandon an internal inquiry into the Savile fiasco, and call in Pollard. Once Pollard’s inquiry was announced, which would inevitably require Boaden and Mitchell to give evidence, Entwistle created two parallel reporting structures for the news division. One was for everything not Savile-related, where Boaden and Mitchell stayed in position, and the other just for Savile-related stories, where an alternative pair of senior managers would stand in.

Soon afterwards, the ticking bomb of the Rippon blog finally exploded, over the weekend of October 20/21. Eighteen days after the many errors were first brought to the BBC’s attention by Jones and McKean, a series of corrections was authorised, just in time for a Panorama programme on what went wrong over the original Newsnight item was broadcast on the 22nd, and Entwistle underwent an embarrassing exposure to the Commons Media Committee on the 23rd. Unable to persuade Rippon to resign, Entwistle asked him to step aside from his role at Newsnight, telling the Commons committee that he had been wrong not to pursue the Savile story. 

Entwistle’s fate was sealed when his parallel news reporting structure failed at the first test. Liz Gibbons had become acting editor of Newsnight. Despite her original opposition to the Savile item, she picked up with alacrity a suggestion from a former BBC reporter, Angus Stickler, that Newsnight re-visit one of his areas of expertise: the scandal of sex abuse at children’s homes in North Wales nearly two decades earlier. He suggested that one of the victims might be able to identify one of his abusers, thought to be Lord McAlpine, who was once Conservative party treasurer.

No-one checked with McAlpine. No-one showed the victim a photograph of McAlpine. A supposed second source, with whom Stickler had conducted a BBC radio interview some years earlier, could not be traced. Nonetheless, Gibbons approved the item, after opting not to name McAlpine.

It was decided – presumably by Gibbons, as Mitchell was never contacted even to inquire as to whether he should be involved – that this was a Savile-related item, presumably because it involved child abuse. It transpired that the news executive designated to stand in for Mitchell – Peter Horrocks, who ran World Service radio – was on leave, so the head of Radio Five Live, Adrian van Klaveren took his place.

According to the internal BBC inquiry (undertaken by the head of BBC Scotland, Ken McQuarrie), van Klaveren was not asked to make a decision until lunchtime on the day of transmission, and appeared to believe that his role was to satisfy himself that “jigsaw identification” of McAlpine was unlikely. A BBC lawyer was involved. In turn, van Klaveren then phoned Peter Johnston, the head of BBC Northern Ireland, who was the designated member of the BBC management board standing in for Boaden.

Johnston, as a former marketing executive, had little experience of tricky news issues. Moreover, he seemed to believe that what he was judging was whether the BBC as a corporate body was at risk: which at that point would not have been obvious to him. However, even before the item was broadcast that evening, a former Newsnight political editor, Michael Crick of Channel 4 News, had tweeted that McAlpine – whom he had contacted – absolutely denied being the abuser.

Soon, the blogosphere was circulating possible names, including McAlpine’s, which was even scribbled on a piece of paper and shown to the Prime Minister as he was being interviewed live on ITV. Within a week, the BBC’s defences against a possible libel action had collapsed. The Guardian had both named McAlpine, and published his strong denial. Finally, the Newsnight interviewee was shown a photograph of McAlpine, conceded that this was not his abuser, and issued a full apology.

Interviewed on radio, Entwistle revealed that he was completely in the dark about nearly all these developments. Within 24 hours, he had resigned, but not before securing a cash settlement that reflected dismissal.

Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust that had unanimously appointed Entwistle, had no appetite for now sacking him with cause, and allowed Entwistle publicly to claim that he had resigned “honourably”: an expensive fiction. Entwistle’s indirect responsibility for the McAlpine debacle was implicitly acknowledged by Tim Davie, who – as soon as he had been installed as acting Director-General – eliminated the parallel news reporting chains, by asking Boaden and Mitchell to step aside completely pending Pollard’s verdict.

Davie’s reaction to the Pollard review was to shift three people sideways, and sack nobody. Rippon and Gibbons were permanently removed from Newsnight, but not otherwise disciplined, let alone dismissed for their abject failures of judgement. The two Newsnight reports – one suppressed for inadequate reasons, the other broadcast when it should never have seen the light of day – had cost the BBC the libel payout to McAlpine, £2 million in the costs of the Pollard inquiry, and a huge amount of public trust.

Despite the evidence of meltdown, distrust and incompetence in her news division, Boaden was restored to her job. Even Mitchell, who chose to announce his retirement, will – it turns out – serve his six months’ notice back in his old job. He was always due to retire in 2013. Only van Klaveren – as a result of his brief and accidental insertion in the misconceived alternative chain of command – was required to give up his job at Radio Five Live (where he was widely regarded as a very successful leader).

Davie’s justification for this minimal response to Pollard was that sacking people would not help the central need to change the BBC’s culture. Patten agreed with him. Actually, the contrary could just as cogently be argued.

Part of the cultural problem of the BBC is a resistance to admitting fault. Accountability is simply not a part of the BBC’s DNA. Even when the BBC Trust itself concluded – after a lengthy and expensive investigation – that a Panorama programme on child labour in the clothing industry had included a sequence implicating Primark that was almost certainly fake, the Panorama team refused to meet the investigator individually, and the findings were shrugged off by BBC management. No-one was disciplined.

One of the ironies for me of the sequence of events was the appointment of Karen O’Connor as acting editor of Newsnight. When she was the editor of a BBC2 series called Correspondent, it broadcast an edition in which an interviewee was treated with such blatant unfairness – in flagrant breach of the BBC’s editorial guidelines – that Ofcom eventually forced the BBC to transmit a lengthy apology. Every level of the BBC supported the iniquitous production, and no word of apology – let alone repayment of his substantial legal costs – was ever offered to the interviewee. Needless to say, no-one on the programme was ever disciplined.

Some have argued that the Panorama on the Savile story, and the decision to call in Pollard, showed that the BBC was fully capable of exposing itself to criticism. Yet for all the merits of that edition, we need to recognize the role of flagship competitiveness in the decision by Panorama to put Newsnight under investigation (not for the first time, by the way). And the involvement of Pollard became inescapable once the extent of ineptitude, chaos and misinformation within the news division became apparent.

This tendency to resist outside criticism could be seen again in the petulant performance of Lord Patten during the press conference at which Pollard explained his findings. Once Patten took over the question and answer session, he bristled when asked if should consider resigning (which he absolutely should) and positively sneered as Miles Goslett – who had initiated the media challenge to the BBC’s version of why the Savile report was dropped – asked him if he still accepted Mark Thompson’s version of events.

It was a very good question, as Pollard had been remarkably incurious as to Thompson’s role and his explanations of his claimed complete ignorance of the Savile item. On December 23rd, Goslett reported that in an interview with The Times in October (which that newspaper recorded), Thompson had mentioned that he had understood the item dealt with alleged sexual abuse; but that Thompson had then asked for that reference to be excluded from what was published, as he no longer thought that recollection accurate. It is hard to conclude anything other than that Thompson was remarkably aloof or less than straightforward.

Changing that culture of non-accountability is a task that has been assigned to the new Director-General, Tony Hall: a long-time BBC executive, returning after 12 years elsewhere.

Perhaps his time at the Royal Opera House will have allowed him to shed what Pollard describes as “the insularity of people who have spent nearly all their working lives at the BBC”. Perhaps he will demolish the “Chinese walls” that so inhibited Entwistle, and for which Pollard could find “no good reason”. Perhaps he will re-consider his decision to hang on to the title of “editor-in-chief”, whose “continuing utility” Pollard also questioned: after all, if you never step in for fear of undermining the independence of the news, you run “a culture of waiting to be told” and yet nothing is ever referred to you, what is the point of the title? Perhaps he will even dismantle the outsize and ill-functioning news and current affairs division that he helped John Birt create. 

However, Hall will not even arrive at the BBC until March, and has been given three months to put together his proposals, which will then need to be approved by the BBC Trust, and then take many more months to implement. No doubt there are those at the BBC who hope that by then the media pack will have shifted its attention elsewhere, and that today’s calls for radical cultural reform and substantial restructuring will have faded somewhat.

Despite its regrettable gaps – the free pass to Thompson, the exclusion of any examination of the radio tributes to Savile, the inadequate questioning of why newspaper reports about the Savile item were ignored by the executive and the Trust – the Pollard Report has done the BBC, and all licence-fee payers and users of BBC news, a major service. It would be a great shame if the implications of the report were not acted upon, in full, and in the right spirit.

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