BBC Director-General Faces Parliament in Jimmy Savile Affair. Can the BBC Restore Its Reputation?

The broadcaster’s director-general was grilled by Parliament Tuesday over allegations that one its most famous presenters, Jimmy Savile, had sexually molested hundreds of underage girls, on an ‘unprecedented scale.’ Peter Jukes on the alleged cover-up by the BBC—and whether the network has redeemed itself by doing its own investigation.

10.23.12 3:33 PM ET

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Jimmy Savile was knighted and feted, a friend of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, a guest of Margaret Thatcher and the Vatican, and his BBC-TV shows would draw 20 million eager viewers. But a documentary by the BBC aired on Monday alleged that the famed broadcaster, who died last year at the age of 84, not only abused young boys and girls over his five decades of fame, but could have been part of an organized pedophile ring that operated at the corporation.

Since the commercial channel ITV aired an Exposure documentary four weeks ago, Scotland Yard has opened a criminal investigation into allegations of child abuse on an “unprecedented scale” by Savile, with up to 200 potential victims and 400 possible leads. Many British institutions, from the Home Office to the National Health Service, face criticism and even legal action for allowing Savile to abuse vulnerable children on their premises. But now it is the BBC that is in the dock for having both promoted Savile—and for having ignored the many warning signs over the years. More specifically, it failed to broadcast an exposé of Savile’s activities last December, and instead broadcast a series of eulogistic tributes.

At the center of what John Simpson, one of the corporation’s most respected reporters, has called “the biggest crisis” in the BBC for nearly 50 years, is the decision of Peter Rippon, editor of the daily current-affairs program, Newsnight, to kill an investigation initiated by reporter Liz MacKean and producer Meirion Jones. Both were extensively interviewed by Panorama, the sister current-affairs weekly to Newsnight that provided both a searing critique of Savile’s career at the BBC, and a comprehensive insight into the corporation's failures to report it.

Most disturbing of all in the Panorama documentary was contemporary footage of Savile groping underage girls on air, and discussing with the convicted sex offender Gary Glitter which ones they would share. Savile was an abuser hiding in “plain sight,” and it speaks volumes about the ’60s and ’70s that his casual misogyny was not only ignored but often applauded, and both victims and potential witnesses thought they wouldn’t be believed if they spoke out.

Jones and MacKean seemed to have finally broken one of Britain’s biggest celebrity scandals for Newsnight last year. Their original investigation was centered on the evidence of Karin Ward, formerly a patient of a care home for girls that Savile frequented, who was also invited to the BBC-TV shows he hosted in the ’60s and ’70s. Ward was persuaded to appear on camera with detailed allegations about how Savile sexually abused her when she was underage, sometimes on BBC premises, and other girls she saw being abused by Savile’s fellow celebrities. Other witnesses came forward to corroborate her testimony, although they refused to appear on camera.

Two days before the exposé was scheduled to be broadcast in December, Newsnight editor Peter Rippon had a sudden change of heart about the validity of the story. An email from him to the program’s makers expressed disappointment that “just the women” had come forward as witnesses and he effectively killed the program by canceling the editing. Both Jones and MacKean claimed to have been shocked by the decision—and MacKean took a severance package and will leave in March while Jones has been seconded to Panorama.

When the same witnesses and allegations formed the basis of the ITV exposé broadcast in early October, Rippon took to his editor’s blog to explain his decision based on police reports. These were used by senior management and the BBC trust to defend the decision to kill the investigation—but Rippon’s public explanations were publicly contested by those involved in making the program and have since been criticized by the BBC hierarchy as “misleading” and “incomplete.” Rippon “stepped aside” from the editorship on Monday.
The Newsnight editor’s “stepping aside” is likely to soon become a “stepping down.” On Tuesday morning, the current director-general of the BBC, George Entwistle (himself a former Newsnight editor), appeared before Parliament and expressed disappointment about both the initial decision and Rippon’s subsequent explanation. An independent inquiry by the former head of rival Sky News, Nick Pollard, into the editorial debacle is not due to report for another six weeks.

While the Newsnight editor is certainly out of a job, there is no certainty the heads will stop rolling with him. Entwistle’s appearance before the Parliament Culture, Sport and Media Select Committee—the same parliamentary committee that gave News Corp.’s Rupert and James Murdoch  an intense grilling during the hacking scandal— was wavering at times, and focused on managerial “processes” and polite apologies. He sometimes looked inexperienced and out of his depth, but to be fair, he’s only been in the job a few weeks. But Entwistle was also head of television at the time of the Savile tributes, and was informed by the head of news, Helen Boaden, about the Newsnight investigation during a brief conversation over a “Women in TV and Film” lunch.

The problems for management focus around this ten-second conversation. At the time, both Boaden and Entwistle were rivals to succeed the then-director-general Mark Thompson, who has since taken up a position as CEO of the New York Times Company. Thompson told Reuters last week that he was “not notified or briefed about the Newsnight investigation … nor involved in any way in the decision not to complete and air the investigation.” However, the Times reported Tuesday that another journalist had questioned Thompson about the Newsnight report at social event that Christmas. The director-general of the BBC is also supposed to be “editor-in-chief,” with ultimately responsibility for its news output—something Thompson’s predecessor, Greg Dyke, learned the hard way when he had to resign from the post during a previous crisis amid allegations that the BBC misled viewers on a report that the government had “sexed up” a dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.

Though the suggestion that the BBC deliberately “covered up” the Savile scandal looks remote given the potential consequences, questions of willful blindness or editorial incompetence still haven’t been fully resolved. An email by MacKean not broadcast by Panorama suggested Rippon had backed off the investigation because he didn’t want to go “up the political chain.” Rather than a specific instruction to back off the story, the whole ethos of BBC management is now under intense scrutiny. “It’s not a cover-up which is at issue here,” as a former senior BBC reporter told The Daily Beast, “but a craven culture of caution and compliance.”

Though he survived Tuesday’s interrogation, the future of Entwistle and other senior managers hang in the balance. They are now caught on the horns of a dilemma—damned for interference and cover-up if it they did too much, damned for incuriosity and negligence if they didn’t. However, thanks to Panorama, the journalistic reputation of one of the world’s premier news organizations has been partially restored. Even the public-service broadcaster’s sternest critics—enjoying something of a “schadenfreudefest” over recent revelations, acknowledged that the Panorama investigation pulled no punches, with some commentators calling it “the best of the BBC investigating the worst.” And Entwistle had a point when he told Parliament that the no other news organization would investigate itself like this, and that the Panorama program was a not a “symptom of chaos … but a symptom of fundamental health.”

Whether or not this journalistic fearlessness will survive the weeks ahead, or revert to yet more “process management” in the face of further attacks, is yet to be seen.