Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Jimmy Savile, Panorama, Newsnight and the smoking gun question

As a former BBC TV News employee, I watched tonight's Panorama on the corporation's handling of the Savile scandal with enormous interest - and it certainly confirmed some of my suspicions.

For a start, the original Savile investigation was being done for the wrong programme (though, obviously, not by the wrong reporter or producer). I suspect that if it had been a Panorama investigation, it would have stood a much better chance of being broadcast. Crime stories on Newsnight don't tend to be done as crime stories - there's almost invariably a political angle, i.e. the police were corrupt or incompetent or racist or someone's human rights have been violated, or government policy was to blame for the crime. The programme editor, Peter Rippon, seems to have become obsessed with whether the Crown Prosecution Service had somehow been at fault - and that would appear to have clouded his judgment as to the strength of the evidence on offer, and to the very scale of the story his team was busy uncovering.

And what Newsnight really doesn't do is stories about celebrities - unless they're supporting left-wing causes, of course. While Panorama is as obsessed with politics as Newsnight (it was practically a communist cell when I joined BBC News in the late 1980s), it can do other types of stories, and has a fairly decent record when it comes to investigative journalism.

Being non-political, the Savile story was not only outside Newsnight's editorial comfort zone - it was probably simply too big for it to handle: it deserved - needed - the sort of time, attention and resources that a one-hour Panorama would have guaranteed it. Newsnight's on five nights a week - it's a treadmill: Panorama's more suited to a dirty great big exploding landmark scandal like Savile's abuse of children.

George Entwhistle, as the head of BBC Vision (i.e. responsible for all TV output) at the time, would have known better than to attempt to interfere in a major News decision like whether or not to run the Savile story. As a former editor of Newsnight himself, he would have known exactly what News's response would be - I'm not surprised he distanced himself from the whole thing (but I'm also puzzled that he took so little interest in it).

But three things really are either perplexing or intriguing. Why didn't anyone, apart the reporter and producer working on the story seem to realise that it had HUGE implications for the BBC? You'd have thought klaxons would have been sounding off all over the building from the moment the team started working on it.

And who exactly told  David Jordan, the Director of Editorial Policy and Standards at the BBC, and Entwhistle, now the Director General, that the main focus of the Newsnight story was an investigation by Surrey Police into Savile's activities - when the producer himself wasn't even aware of the police investigation when he first pitched the story to his editor? Jordan and Entwhistle both got this wrong in public and the BBC has had to correct their statements. This strikes me as the main "smoking gun" question as far as the Newsnight brouhaha is concerned. These are all News people - surely none of them would get their wires crossed on such a straightforward issue?

The Newsnight editor, Peter Rippon, has "stepped aside" while the BBC's various investigations into the matter proceed. What I really wanted to know last night was what sort of communication he'd had with his superiors within News - especially Director of News, Helen Boaden - in the period between giving his team the go-ahead to nail Savile and his susequent decision to kill the story.

And why did he write in his blog that he understood the five victims interviewed by Newsnight had all been in touch with the police, when they evidently hadn't? Curious.

I'm sure my interest in these minutiae will strike most non-BBC folk as a bit train-spottery - but I'm fascinated, because, having worked there, I've got an inkling as to how things might have gone this spectacularly pear-shaped.

Obviously, for most of us, the main interest is now to find out who else was involved in this sordid affair. Gary Glitter (unsusprisingly) was mentioned last night. Rather oddly, a sequence from Savile's Clunk Click show featuring Freddie Starr - who has already strongly denied any involvement whatsoever in paedophile activities - was shown last night. Was that an oversight on the part of the Panorama producer? Or a deliberate smear?

Some further random observations:

I agree with John Simpson - this is the biggest scandal to engulf the BBC in our lifetime: not the Newsnight folderol as such, but the corporation's seeming complicity in one of its biggest star's criminal behaviour over decades.

It was interesting to see just how repelled fellow disc-jockey Paul Gambaccini was by Savile: no doubt his evident anger was partly caused by the fact that, in the 1970s, he would have had to cover up his perfectly legal sexual proclivities (he came out as gay in the '80s), while Savile was barely bothering to conceal his own criminal tastes - that must have been fantastically galling for the young American.

There was a clip of Savile on Have I Got News for You in 1999, where Ian Hislop asked him - not in a jokey fashion - exactly what he got up to in his caravan. "Anyone I can get my hands on," was the filthy old bastard's reply. Fellow guest Diane Abbott laughed merrily, but Hislop remained stoney-faced. I wonder what Private Eye knew about Savile.

This one, as they say, will run and run.


  1. Thank you for your interesting insights and comments on the Panorama programme. And for not publishing a photograph of the subject. Excellent stuff.

  2. The BBC should be investigating St John International head office in London. St John International in London are currently pulling out all the stops in order to present awards to two members of the St John New Zealand paedophile gang. The awards are to be presented by the Queen’s representative in NZ, the Governor General.

  3. Something obviously went wrong with the thinking of some of the BBC people involved. Some of them could see it was wrong at the time. The others can all see now that it had gone wrong. Whatever that thing was is obviously odd, peculiar, unlikely, ...

    If the Newsnight revelations about Savile had aired, the Christmas schedules would have had to be torn up. You don't think do you, it's not possible is it, that no-one could face re-scheduling Christmas so they ditched the programme? Tell me it doesn't work that way.

  4. David Moss.I suspect that you have nailed it in two short paragraphs. Think of the money that would be saved if only the "authorities" [whoever they are] would listen to you. As the Blogmeister General says "This one will run and run." Oh Christ.....

  5. Sorry to disappoint you both, but it really doesn't work that way. I'm absolutely sure that Entwhistle, on hearing of the Newsnight investigation, would have groaned at the thought of having to monkey around with the schedules - but it wouldn't even have occurred to him to try to stop the report because of that. A lot of things annoy me about the BBC - but, honestly, they're better than that. The real question is, did someone in News (who have nothing to do with the schedules) think they'd be harming their career prospects by causing the BBC embarrassment in forcing a scheduling change and by unmasking a celebrity monster the corporation had itself created? This smells of funk slightly lower down the food chain to me. And, as I said, I'm sure Panorama would have run with it.

    When Mark Thompson, Entwhistle's predecessor as DG, took over the Nine O'Clock News, having descended from Current Affairs, straight crime was virtually outlawed from our coverage - unless there was some political angle (the phrase "landmark" crime was bandied about). That's got better over the years, but News still strikes me as unsure of itself when it comes to crime stories, and I have an idea that's where the problem lies in this instance.

  6. Obviously, I didn't watch the Savile tribute programme at Christmas, but from the clip shown on Panorama - with Shane Ritchie pointing to Savile's red Jim'll Fix It chair (wide enough for a smallish adult and a child, by the look of it) - I'm pretty sure it would have made me hurl chunks. And I would have done so even if nothing had emerged about the monster's activities. Maybe everyone associated with that tribute programme should be asked to step aside as well.

  7. Jenni Russell, the Guardian, 31 October 2008:


    Killed by the radio star
    The BBC has long let big names such as Brand and Ross lord it over editors. I learned this the hard way

    Radio 2's controller, Lesley Douglas, has shown a sense of responsibility and dignity rare among the BBC's management in resigning over the Ross-Brand affair. It breaks with a disgraceful BBC tradition of passing the buck as far down the line as possible. And it shows that she, perhaps alone among the senior managers at the corporation, is ready to recognise the acute difficulties junior editorial staff face when they are given notional responsibility for wilful on-air talent.

    It is not a new problem. Early in my broadcasting career I was assigned the job of producing a radio star. The editor told me confidentially that the great man was not at the top of his game. It was my task to radically improve the quality of what went out.

    As a young, earnest producer, I took it seriously. My duty was clear, and it was to the audience. On day one I suggested how we might rewrite a slightly misleading script, and the star shouted at me for my temerity. On day two I recut a package and the star ordered me out of the editing suite in a rage. On day three I asked him to add a question to an interview. He slammed down the talkback button and stormed off to see the editor. On day four I was moved and a more amenable producer was brought in ...


    This marvellous, lovely woman now has cancer and wrote in the Sunday Times, 11 December 2011:


    Not skiving, minister, just suffering cancer

    After six weeks [of chemotherapy] I started losing sensation in my fingers and toes: it was peripheral neuropathy, a sometimes permanent side effect. My hair and eyelashes fell out; I looked like an egg. Most terrifying of all was that my brain started to work much more slowly. Even on the good days I couldn’t take in articles or arguments with the automatic speed I had always relied on. Research showed that chemo brain damage could be permanent, too ...


    That brain is still working and in yesterday's Guardian she wrote:


    Could Newsnight's editor really have acted alone on the Jimmy Savile story?
    It's nonsense to say executives above Rippon would be unfazed by the Savile investigation, as George Entwistle should know

    No one in the organisation is ever unaware of the possible damage to the BBC's brand when news starts asking critical questions of the BBC itself ...

    I found in eight years of being an editor in current affairs there, the organisation is astoundingly defensive whenever it is challenged ...

    ... the BBC has always been quite ready to apply fierce informal pressure to troublesome editors ...

    Our bosses expected us to hold everyone else to account, but they didn't want us to uphold the same standards when it came to themselves ...

    ... it's difficult to accept that any executives above Rippon who got to hear about the Savile investigation would have responded with benign equanimity, thinking: never mind the schedules or the explosive damage to our image; it's simply marvellous that Newsnight is displaying its journalistic objectivity and it will be so interesting to see what it finds out.


    1. Jenni Russell's experience brought back so many memories, I've responded to your comment in a separate post.