Emails shed light on BBC battle over Savile probe
AN INTERNAL battle at the BBC’s Newsnight over an investigation by the programme into allegations that entertainer Jimmy Savile abused young girls has been revealed in emails written by one of the reporters involved.
Peter Rippon, editor of the flagship current affairs programme, has stood down after it emerged he gave only a partial explanation of the reasons for not broadcasting the investigation, carried out last year.
Emails from Liz MacKean, one of two reporters who investigated allegations against the now-deceased Savile, were not included in the BBC’s Panorama programme on Newsnight’s handling of the issue, broadcast on Monday.
In one email, Ms MacKean complained: “Having commissioned the story, Peter Rippon keeps saying he’s lukewarm about it and is trying to kill it by making impossible editorial demands.
“When we rebut his points, he resorts to saying: ‘Well, it was 40 years ago . . . the girls were teenagers, not too young . . . they weren’t the worst kind of sexual offences etc.’ He hasn’t warned BBC1 about the story, so they’re beavering away on the special [tribute programme to Savile], oblivious,” Ms MacKean wrote in the email, obtained by Channel 4 News last night.
Her view then that senior BBC management had been left in the dark will come as some comfort to the BBC, which is facing charges that pressure was brought to bear on Newsnight not to go ahead with the programme.
During a two-hour grilling before MPs yesterday, BBC director-general George Entwistle laid the blame for the crisis at Mr Rippon’s door.
He said he had been told briefly – when in charge of BBC entertainment programmes – that Newsnight was investigating Savile and that it could “upset” his Christmas schedules.
Rejecting allegations that the Newsnight programme was blocked because it would have scuppered plans for a three-part Christmas Savile tribute, Mr Entwistle said the schedules could have been easily rearranged.
Facing charges from Conservative MP John Whittingdale that he had shown “an extraordinary lack of curiosity”, Mr Entwistle said he did not inquire further lest it be interpreted that he was applying pressure. Last night Mark Thompson, who was director-general at the time, said he, too, had been told that Newsnight was investigating Savile, but no more.
The “personal involvement” of a director-general in programmes is rare, he said in a letter to an MP, because it could have “a distorting or chilling effect on the journalism involved.
“Particular care not to directly involve the DG is taken when investigations may involve the BBC itself, to avoid the risk of a conflict of interest or the perception of one,” he wrote.
Giving evidence to MPs, Mr Entwistle said Savile had been revealed as one who “prosecuted his disgusting activities in a manner that was very successfully and skilfully concealed”.
“Experts in paedophile behaviour have pointed out that this is often the case . . . People build long-range plans to put them in contact with their targets. These things are institutionally, it seems, very difficult to deal with.
“For all the many years that people say they heard rumours and allegations, no newspaper landed an investigation into Jimmy Savile that I am aware of, and no other broadcaster did.”
Monday’s Panorama investigation showed the BBC was not afraid vigorously to interrogate itself, adding that that the BBC could be “immensely proud” of that. “Rather than considering the Panorama programme as a symptom of chaos, I regard last night’s programme as a symbol of the fundamental health of BBC journalism,” he said.