The BBC this morning published 3,000 pages of interviews and correspondence related to the Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal and the 2011 shelving of a Newsnight program that would have revealed the late host’s alleged crimes. The documents include few earthshattering revelations, but are laced with internal criticisms and email chains that provide a window onto the workings of the venerable broadcaster whose armor has been severely dinged in the past several months as a result of the combined crises. (Read the full report here.)
The documents, provided by the Pollard Inquiry into the handling of the Newsnight affair, include testimony from key witnesses like Newsnight anchor Jeremy Paxman, whose evidence has been the focus of much scrutiny given its criticisms of management. He told interviewers that the Pollard Inquiry was being conducted in a “ridiculous fashion” and called the BBC’s behavior regarding the Newsnight report “contemptible.” He further said he’d been surprised by then-editor Peter Rippon’s response when Paxman wanted to pursue the Savile investigation after learning that rival ITV was about to air its own exposé. According to Paxman, Rippon said “I just can’t do this.” Paxman contends the use of the word ‘can’t’ was “very, very unusual… and I didn’t say, ‘What do you mean ‘can’t’? Someone has told you that you can’t, or you physically can’t face it?’” Paxman says he now believes it was a mixture of both. (The BBC said yesterday that Rippon would take over a newly-created post as editor of the BBC online archive). Paxman added that Savile’s behavior was “common gossip” around the corporation, although much of his testimony has been redacted. The BBC said today that 3% of the overall information has been blacked out “for a very limited number of legal reasons.”
Testimony was also published from former BBC director general Mark Thompson (now CEO of The New York Times Company), former director general George Entwistle, BBC One controller Danny Cohen, BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten, outgoing head of news Helen Boaden and Newsnight journalist Meirion Jones, among others. Patten said in a statement today, “These documents paint a very unhappy picture, but the BBC needs to be open – more open than others would be – in confronting the facts that lie behind Nick Pollard’s report.”
In Patten’s own testimony, he calls the Newsnight team “dysfunctional” and says the BBC has both “overmanaged and undermanaged.” He also says he was encouraged in October by then director general Entwistle not to launch an investigation into the Newsnight cancellation. “George persuaded me that wasn’t a very good idea,” Patten says in the transcripts. That decision was ultimately rethought and the Pollard Inquiry was convened. It originally released its report late last year and criticized the BBC for its response to revelations about Savile made by the rival ITV program, calling it “chaos and confusion.” Pollard also separately said it was “one of the worst management crises in the BBC’s history.”
Thompson’s testimony begins with a prepared statement in which he reiterates that he never worked with Savile, was never “in receipt of, or aware of any complaint about him.” If he had known or suspected “that Savile was a paedophile and rapist,” he would have “acted on the information.” Regarding Newsnight, he said, “The unfinished investigation into Jimmy Savile was not referred to me… To this day… I do not know with certainty what journalistic material the team had amassed, and on the basis of what evidence and advice the decision was taken to not to proceed with the investigation.”
Among the emails, perhaps this one could be seen to reflect some of what this crisis has been about. Dan McGolpin, head of BBC One scheduling wrote to BBC One controller Danny Cohen on being notified of a Savile tribute program being made after Savile’s death and while there were still questions about how to handle his passing: “Strange how parts of the BBC just seem to do things without checking first…,” he wrote.