Will the Jimmy Savile Scandal Tarnish the BBC?

Scotland Yard is opening up a criminal investigation into the BBC’s Jimmy Savile. Peter Jukes reports.

Chris Ware / Getty Images

Another month, and yet another venerable British institution is under a shadow. After allegations of rate rigging caused resignations at Barclays, one of Britain’s biggest banks, and the ongoing phone-hacking scandal that has brought Fleet Street into disrepute, the country’s globally respected broadcaster, the BBC, has fallen prey to its own scandal—this one involving alleged pedophilia and one of institution’s most famous broadcasters.

With his shock of long white hair, shell suits, medallions and ever present Cuban cigars, Sir Jimmy Savile was an iconic figure in British pop culture from the early '60s onwards. By the time he died in October of last year at the age of 84, he had acquired riches from his TV appearances as well as a wealth of honors for his charity work. He was laid out in a gold coffin in his home town of Leeds, and 4,000 people turned out to pay their respects for the eccentric but memorable media personality. As recently as Christmas 2011, the BBC aired a series of tributes to Savile, but at the same time, the broadcaster had pulled an investigation into longstanding rumors of rape and child sexual abuse by the TV celebrity.

Thanks to an ITV documentary aired two weeks ago, in which several victims came forward to testify to Savile’s regular grooming and abuse of underage girls, Scotland Yard announced on Friday that it was opening a criminal investigation a “staggering” 200 potential victims and 400 leads indicating sexual abuse on a “unprecedented scale” going back decades. Some of the alleged victims were patients at the well-known hospitals Savile patronized with his charity work—including a spinal-injuries hospital, Stoke Mandeville—and the secure psychiatric hospital Broadmoor. Yet more allegations concern abuse of young girls on BBC premises, where Savile hosted weekly shows such as Top of the Pops and Jim’ll Fix It. The BBC has now opened three inquiries into the alleged crimes of their former frontman who, in the words of Guardian columnist Deborah Orr, “groomed a whole nation.” But most damaging of all for the BBC is the allegation that the corporation knew about Savile’s abuse and suppressed the truth.

Back in December 2011, soon after Savile’s death, the BBC’s flagship current-affairs daily, Newsnight, had begun to amass strong evidence against Savile. The program’s top investigative reporter Liz MacKean, along with producer Meiron Jones, had interviewed one of Savile’s victims on camera, and had elicited supporting evidence from other victims alleging abuse on BBC premises and at Stoke Mandeville. The project was deemed a high-impact item, and significantly advanced enough—emails leaked on Friday suggest—to be flagged up in the BBC press office.

The project was given to Newsnight editor Peter Rippon for consideration. Sources close to the program told The Daily Beast that the investigative team knew there would be a clash between the Savile tributes and the Newsnight piece, but fully expected that the tributes would be cancelled. But the investigative team was shocked to be told that their investigation would not go ahead and instead, the tributes would. The sources allege that Rippon was afraid the controversial investigation would "go right up the chain" and that the central victim witness, 15 at the time of the alleged abuse, would not withstand close scrutiny into her character.

The decision to pull the Newsnight investigation is now subject to an internal inquiry led by Nick Pollard, former editor in chief of the rival Sky News, and the BBC has denied that any other factors came into the decision other than the quality of the journalism. Peter Rippon had stood by his decision that the story did not have enough corroborating evidence. However, the key elements of MacKean’s story formed the basis of the ITV Exposure documentary which unleashed a slew of further allegations and a metropolitan police inquiry. Liz Mackean has since taken voluntary redundancy of the BBC, and will leave next March.

The failure of the BBC to investigate one of the biggest child-abuse scandals involving a public figure is bad enough in itself, but the journalistic lapse could “go right up the chain too.” The director-general of the BBC at the time, Mark Thompson, has since left and is due to take over his role as CEO of The New York Times Group next month. This has led to question if the scandal will dog him in the U.S. Thompson has insisted that he was “not notified or briefed about the Newsnight investigation, nor was I involved in any way in the decision not to complete and air the investigation.”

It is Thompson’s successor, George Entwistle, who was head of BBC Vision at the time and in charge of broadcasting the Savile tributes, who is most directly in the firing line. He admitted he was informed of the Newsnight investigation, but claims he didn’t interfere. Entwistle faces a grueling session next Tuesday before lawmakers in Parliament—the very same committee that grilled the Murdochs over the phone-hacking scandal.

Most BBC insiders doubt proof of a conscious cover-up of the Savile scandal is likely to emerge, but point to an equally worrying conclusion: that the corporation has developed a culture of caution and risk aversion which makes it hard to pursue hard investigative stories. If this is true, then Mark Thompson can be said to share some blame.

Thompson took over when his predecessor, Greg Dyke, resigned in the wake of the Hutton Report in 2004. Lord Hutton had led a judicial inquiry into a BBC report that the government “sexed-up” a dossier on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the American led invasion of 2003, and had concluded the report was misleading.

“Since Hutton, the authority and independence of program makers has been seriously undermined,” one former senior BBC reporter told The Daily Beast. Under Thompson’s leadership, many BBC programmers have deferred to the corporation’s Editorial Policy Unit which, though designed merely to give guidance and support to programme makers has—it is alleged—become more proactive and potentially “chilling.” As former senior BBC executive told The Daily Beast: “if you did not consult editorial policy in a difficult investigation, you would have less back up and defense from the BBC.”

While many tabloid journalists are comparing the Savile scandal to the hacking scandal that hit Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World, the analogy is trite. There’s absolutely no suggestion the BBC commissioned Jimmy Savile to abuse young girls, whereas several senior News International executives, including its former CEO Rebekah Brooks, face trial next year for allegedly commissioning phone hacking.

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Moreover, the producer of the original Newsnight investigation, Meiron Jones, is now working with the BBC 1 Panorama documentary into the affair, due to be broadcasted this Monday. The BBC could still restore its journalistic reputation by running a proper fearless piece of reporting into its own failures.

However, if it fails to act quickly, the BBC’s once sterling reputation for investigative journalism could be severely tarnished. Nine years ago, heads rolled after the BBC was found guilty of making a false positive, of running an inaccurate story. More resignations could follow these new inquiries conclude the corporation made a false negative, and failed to run a story which proved to be shockingly true.