Joe Utichi contributes to Deadline’s UK coverage.
UPDATE, 6 PM: Trust in the BBC could be irreparably shaken by its actions and inaction surrounding sexual abuse allegations against former host Jimmy Savile, tonight’s report on the BBC investigative series Panorama suggests. As previously detailed, the special report presented new evidence questioning the reasons behind the cancellation of the network’s Newsnight investigation into the late presenter last year. It also interviewed former BBC staff present during Savile’s career on BBC radio and television who spoke of an accepted attitude of rumor and innuendo that left the presenter unchallenged on sex abuse allegations during his life. The BBC must operate with complete transparency to avoid further damage to its reputation, which puts it in an unusual position as its own news programs report on the unfolding scandal. “This Panorama is the BBC at its best,” tweeted radio presenter Iain Dale. “Shame it also reveals the BBC at its very worst.”
PREVIOUS, 5:55 AM: It’s turning into the biggest media scandal to hit Britain since the phone-hacking brouhaha broke wide open last year. Last week, and spurred on by an ITV documentary that aired this month, police said they had identified 400 lines of inquiry and 200 potential victims as part of a formal criminal investigation into alleged sexual abuse of minors by late BBC host Jimmy Savile and others. Today, BBC Newsnight editor Peter Rippon became the first executive to step aside over the corporation’s handling of the situation. Rippon’s suspension comes ahead of a potentially damning report to air tonight on Panorama, another BBC investigative series, about his decision to kill a Newsnight piece on Savile last year.
In 2011, Newsnight had been working on a report with what Rippon and BBC director general George Entwistle have maintained was an editorial brief to find failings with prosecutors’ earlier handling of the complaints against Savile. The pair has said the show didn’t meet its goal and was shelved. But the BBC today says Rippon’s explanation about why he spiked the report last December was “inaccurate or incomplete in some respects.” Newsnight journalist Liz MacKean tells Panorama in tonight’s report that the focus was on the Savile allegations themselves. “The story we were investigating was very clear cut. It was about Jimmy Savile being a pedophile,” she says, according to the BBC. Show editor Meirion Jones also warned Rippon of his concerns, “I was sure the story would come out one way or another and the BBC would be accused of a cover-up.” The BBC’s foreign editor John Simpson describes the scandal as “The worst crisis that I can remember in my nearly 50 years at the BBC.”
Tonight’s episode of Panorama will place scrutiny on the company, and especially Entwistle. The report is understood to have been rushed to the finish, so it could air ahead of Entwistle’s appearance before a select committee of Parliament tomorrow morning. The committee’s chairman told The Telegraph there were “huge questions to be answered” about the BBC’s decision not to broadcast Newsnight‘s Savile revelations. The Panorama piece reportedly includes suggestions that Rippon was subject to pressure from BBC bosses to ditch the investigation so Savile tribute shows could air at Christmastime without controversy. Savile, who had hosted Top Of The Pops and wish-granting show Jim’ll Fix It, had passed away just a few months earlier.
Entwistle has been in the director general post for a little more than a month, but his response to the growing scandal has been inconsistent. He insisted there’d be no inquiry into the allegations until the Metropolitan police had finished their criminal investigation. In a 180, he subsequently announced two inquiries — one into the allegations themselves and the culture at the BBC during Savile’s reign, and another into the cancelled Newsnight piece. Along with BBC news director Helen Boaden and Rippon, he refused to be interviewed by the Panorama team. Heads will have to roll if it’s proved the decision to kill the Newsnight show was not editorial. Former director general Greg Dyke said that no senior executive could survive being directly implicated in such a cover-up.