Decision to drop Savile programme 'flawed'


Senior BBC executives have escaped sacking over a decision last year not to broadcast a Newsnight programme in December 2011 into child sex allegations against entertainer Jimmy Savile.

The review, set up by the BBC to see if there had been management failings in relation to the Newsnight investigation, found that the decision not to proceed with the programme had been “flawed”, but was “taken in good faith”. It also said it had not been influenced by the BBC’s plans to broadcast a three-part Christmas tribute to the deceased and now disgraced broadcaster.

The review by former Sky News executive Nick Pollard found that top level management were left in the dark last year about the planned programme after the BBC’s deputy director of news, Stephen Mitchell, took it off a list of potential risky programmes.

George Entwistle, who was forced to quit as BBC director general after the controversy, had been given a “too casual, too fleeting” briefing about the Newsnight investigation at a lunch in early December.

Having stood down temporarily as BBC’s director of news, Helen Boaden, who was criticised for failing to show leadership at key stages during the controversy, will return to her post today, despite calls in some quarters for resignations.

Chaos and confusion

The BBC proved itself to be “completely incapable of dealing” with the controversy after ITV revealed in October that the Newsnight investigation had been scrapped, finding itself mired in “chaos and confusion”.

Indeed, the chaos was even worse than realised, Mr Pollard found: “The efforts to get to the truth behind the Savile story proved beyond the combined efforts of the senior management, legal department, corporate communications team and anyone else for well over a month. Leadership and organisation seemed to be in short supply.”

Newsnight reporters Meirion Jones and Liz MacKean “were right about Savile. Their belief that Savile had a history of abusing young women was correct. They provided Newsnight with cogent evidence of this. The programme could have broken the story almost a year before the ITV documentary revealed it,” said Mr Pollard. Management, though, was right to demand that the same standards of proof applied to Savile alive or dead, he added.

No evidence exists that BBC staff preparing the Savile Christmas tribute had ever been aware of “the allegations against or rumours about Savile”, though Mr Entwistle was enigmatically told about the broadcaster’s “darker side”, which should have “given him pause for thought”.

Meanwhile, a second inquiry into Newsnight’s reporting of false claims that a former senior Conservative was a paedophile – who was later wrongly identified as Lord McAlpine – has found a catalogue of failures.

No checks

Basic reporting checks were not made, while no one seemed to know who was in charge, said BBC Scotland chief Ken MacQuarrie, adding that Newsnight was seriously weakened after its editor had been forced to stand down and its deputy editor had quit.

The programme interviewed Steve Messham, a former resident of a Welsh children’s care home, who claimed that he had been abused by the Conservative – though he subsequently retracted his allegations once shown a photograph of Lord McAlpine.

“The allegations were not based on sound evidence. They were not thoroughly tested and, whilst there was no suggestion that the programme-makers had sought to mislead the public, this had been the effect,” the BBC Trust said yesterday.