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Savile-gate: George Entwistle's first big test

The BBC’s decision to broadcast two tributes to Jimmy Savile while shelving a Newsnight investigation into allegations of sexual offences was a serious error of judgement. George Entwistle must now deploy the broadcaster’s considerable resources to establish what really happened and face up to his own culpability. 

David Elstein
11 October 2012

The BBC's Director-General is both its chief executive and its editor-in-chief. This means the DG runs the organisation but also has front line responsibility for its journalism. Like his predecessor, Mark Thompson, the newly-appointed George Entwistle ran one of the BBC's major current affairs programmes: in his case, Newsnight.

The BBC's biggest failure in the Jimmy Savile affair is not that it abandoned a Newsnight investigation into Savile's alleged sexual offences against minors, nor that it failed to pass the allegations to the police, nor even that some of the offences were reported to have taken place on BBC premises.

The most blatant failure - for which both Entwistle and Thompson must share much of the blame - was the decision to broadcast two tribute programmes to Savile, only weeks after the Newsnight item was abandoned. It is simply not credible that neither man knew of the substance of the Newsnight research. Entwistle acknowledges knowing about it well before the tribute programmes were shown. It was scarcely beyond his remit - in charge at the time, last December, of all BBC TV channels - to ask to see the suppressed item, as it concerned a former leading light of BBC entertainment programmes, whose life was due to be celebrated in the next few weeks on one of his channels.

All people who run and schedule TV channels are trained to spot potential breaches of taste that unpredictable events can trigger, if planned output happens to echo real life tragedies. Last month, BBC1 dropped the final episode of its drama series Good Cop at short notice, because its story line involved a violent attack on a policewoman in a northern city - and that week two policewomen were killed in Manchester by a wanted criminal.

You do not leave The Towering Inferno in the schedule in the week of the 9/11 attacks. You do not leave The Poseidon Adventure in the schedule in the week of a maritime disaster. The only reason for not removing the Savile tribute programmes from the BBC schedule would have been that senior BBC executives did not know about the Newsnight allegations, or did not believe them, or did not care whether they were true, or hoped that they would not reach the public through some other medium.

Only the first of these could have the beginnings of a justification; and even that bears little scrutiny, as executives like Thompson and Entwistle are expected to have a sixth sense for possible corporate embarrassment. Given the vocal anger that emanated from the Newsnight investigation team after the programme's then editor, Peter Rippon, decided not to show their report, only a deaf, dumb and blind executive could have been unaware of the allegations, reportedly made by ten different interviewees.

"Wilful blindness" was one of the charges laid against James Murdoch over phone hacking at the News of the World, in the light of his seeming indifference to the mounting weight of allegations. The Commons Select Committee, the whole of the non-Murdoch press and even Ofcom excoriated James for his failure to act. Given Entwistle's "I was appalled" reaction to last week's ITV documentary containing much more extensive detail of Savile's behaviour, it seems incredible that he never took the trouble to inquire further into the Newsnight report.

Now he is repeating another of James' mistakes: citing police activity as grounds for his own inactivity. The notion that any initiative by the BBC to help the victims of this alleged sexual predator might interfere with a police investigation into criminality is clearly nonsense. The BBC has access to all its tapes of programmes involving Savile and young girls in close contact. It could create a website including still frames of every example of Savile engaging with girls, inviting those portrayed to contact the BBC with details of what they remember from those encounters.

Of course, like News Corporation, the BBC may find that it faces financial liability for actions committed by its employees and hired artistes on its premises, irrespective of whether the BBC had any knowledge of such behaviour. But that can surely not be a reason to fail to take the lead in mapping the extent and nature of what Savile (and possibly others) got up to under cover of Top of the Pops and Jim'll Fix It.

We saw a couple of years ago how an absurd radio stunt involving Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand spiralled into a major crisis for the BBC, largely because its top executives did not move fast enough and decisively enough to get on top of the story. The Savile story has been serially mishandled by the BBC, and its responses have been slow, unconvincing and inadequate. If George Entwistle was only a link in the chain of the early failure over Newsnight, he was one of the key players in the decision not to withdraw the two tribute programmes, and he is front and centre in the current lamentable performance. He needs to raise his game now, by bringing to bear the BBC's considerable resources in order to establish what happened - including any culpability on its own part.

Those alleged victims of Savile who were brave enough to face the Newsnight cameras will have been doubly aggrieved to see their interviews junked, whilst their nemesis was duly celebrated by the BBC. ITV's decision in showing its own exposee throws into sharp relief the multiple errors of judgement committed by Entwistle and his colleagues. It is not too late for the BBC to get on top of this evolving story: but the evidence so far does not encourage a belief that it will.

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