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Kevin Marsh

Why the BBC’s boss had to go

British Journalism Review
Vol. 23, No. 4, 2012, pages 19-28


Kevin Marsh left the BBC in 2011 after more than 20 years as an editor (The World at One and Today) and executive editor of the BBC College of Journalism. He is now Director of OffspinMedia.


Contents - Vol 23, No 4, 2012

Editorial - A question of trust 3


Not finally... Subjective views on matters journalistic 5
Irfan Ashraf, Mihir Bose, Andrew Gimson, Joy Johnson

Kevin Marsh - Why the BBC’s boss had to go 19

Phil Harding - It’s time to take ethics seriously 29

Tim Luckhurst - A sordid era, but the future’s bright 35

Jerome Taylor, Mark Neary and Romana Canneti - Opening up closed doors of justice 42

Andrew Gray - Military reporting needs new fronts 51

Graham Lord - Life with a Fleet Street monster 57

Arthur MacMillan - The sad decline of The Scotsman 64

BOOK REVIEWS
Ann Leslie on Ryszard Kapuscinski 70
John Kampfner on Brian Winston 73
Damien McCrystal on Tim Burt 75
Donald Trelford on Miriam Gross 77
Bill Hagerty on Ian Mackay 79
Quotes of the Quarter – 18
Twitter Watch - 40
Leveson Blogs - 50


 

How did a spiked Newsnight report lead to all this? asks a former BBC editor. And will the Corporation ever regain trust?

It became a BBC crisis like no other. Its flagship programme, Newsnight, at the centre and a director general, George Entwistle … well, in theory at the centre but in reality always somewhat more distant. And now he’s paid the price. It’s not hard to see why. Egregiously incurious, first about the spiked Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile’s child abuse in the late autumn of 2011. And then, when the words “Newsnight” and “child abuse” collided again in the late autumn of 2012 and implicated the former Conservative Party treasurer, Lord McAlpine, in allegations of child abuse and cover-up at the notorious Bryn Estyn children’s home.

We can be sure of two things.

First, George Entwistle had no option but to go.

Second, that trust still matters to the BBC and while the polls don’t tell the full story, the one they do tell is grim. Over 70 per cent of us, apparently, no longer trust BBC executives to tell the truth; about the same percentage suspects a cover-up over Savile — two-thirds think the shelved Newsnight investigation was part of that; and two-thirds trust the BBC less than before. For the first time ever, fewer trust the BBC than don’t. Trust hasn’t been shaken; according to one pollster, it’s been “shattered”.

How did it happen? It’s easy to draw the conclusion that Newsnight landed the BBC in the Lord McAlpine fiasco as some form of expiation for the shelved Jimmy Savile investigation. Too cautious on the first, too incautious on the second.

But that’s too simplistic. The McAlpine fiasco was bad journalism from beginning to end and nothing excuses it. What might, in part, explain it was the nudge Entwistle gave to BBC editors and executives when he appeared before the Culture Select Committee and condemned unequivocally the decision of Newsnight editor Peter Rippon to spike his Savile investigation.

No BBC editor or executive watching that performance could have been confident that shelving the testimony of another child abuse victim would have enhanced their career.

The McAlpine crisis grew out of the Savile crisis — or, more accurately, George Entwistle’s and the BBC’s mishandling of the Savile crisis. And, in particular, how that mishandling ensured that the row over the Newsnight Savile investigation that should have been peripheral to the exposure of the biggest serial paedophile in British history, took centre stage in the media firestorm for three damaging weeks.


The Newsnight investigation

Newsnight editor Peter Rippon’s decision in December 2011 to shelve his programme’s investigation into Savile’s abuse of young girls had no realworld resonance. Savile was dead and would never be called to account. Nor was any young girl now at risk. The decision wasn’t Rippon’s finest editorial moment, but it mattered outside the Newsnight offices only because of allegations that it was part of a cover-up. As the Daily Mail put it:

“The BBC shelved a Newsnight investigation into allegations that Sir Jimmy Savile sexually abused teenage girls at its studios .. attempting to cover up the allegations in an effort to protect its own reputation.”

There was no evidence whatever of a cover-up, though there were well-informed leaks from within the BBC levelling the charge. No-one, the reasoning went, could have spiked a story as good as this. The only possible explanation was corporate conspiracy. To save planned TV tributes to Savile over Christmas 2011, perhaps even to cover-up the BBC’s decades-long tolerance of its star’s criminality.

For all the intense, near theological analysis the shelved Newsnight investigation subsequently attracted, it was, in essence, little different from the hundreds of other investigations the BBC starts and then either scraps or broadcasts every year.

Two days after Savile died, at the end of October 2011, Newsnight producer Meirion Jones pitched the idea of exposing the late BBC DJ and presenter as a paedophile. Like most people working in the media, Jones had heard the many rumours that had circulated for years. But he believed he could establish something more certain and, now that Savile was dead, could do so with no risk of libel.

His aunt, Margaret Jones, now in her 90s, had been headmistress at Duncroft School, the Approved School in the Home Counties that Savile often visited in the 1970s, sometimes staying overnight or taking girls on outings in his Rolls Royce. Jones was sure that, through his connection with Duncroft, he could persuade at least one of Savile’s victims to give her testimony on camera.

Rippon agreed that Jones and reporter Liz MacKean, who’d worked together on Newsnight’s award-winning Trafigura exclusives, should start trying to gather evidence. Things began well; they managed to persuade one of Savile’s victims, Karin Ward, to break some 40 years of silence and go on camera; and they made contact with some of Savile’s other victims at Duncroft who’d kept contact with each other through a social networking site. None was keen, initially, to go on camera but all seemed to corroborate Karin Ward’s and one another’s testimony.

Rippon was clear that Savile’s paedophilia was at the heart of the investigation. He was less clear, though, what the focus would be of any eventual film. As he explained later, he was never comfortable with the idea of reporting nothing more than decades- old allegations against a dead celebrity who was, self-evidently, unable to offer a defence. An exceptionally cautious approach, even by BBC standards but not editorially invalid.

There were good reasons to be cautious. Rippon recalls that Jones seemed much less confident about the strength and reliability of Karin Ward’s testimony than MacKean; he recalls, too, that he was unhappy that the corroborating witnesses and victims had been in contact with one another for many years previously; nor was he happy about the way they’d been questioned. And there was, as yet, no third-party evidence.

Then, Jones and MacKean heard from one of their interviewees that Surrey police had investigated complaints against Savile back in 2007. One of his victims claimed to have a letter from the force explaining that they’d dropped that inquiry because he was too old and frail. It was the kind of thing that Rippon needed. It didn’t satisfy all his concerns, but it gave the investigation a potentially sharp focus – an institutional failure, Newsnight’s bread and butter — as well as third party testimony.

It was go.

Jones and MacKean started pulling their material together, editing, writing draft scripts and gathering the other interviews they needed to make a complete film. They were still some way from that, but the BBC press office was tipped off to prepare for a story in which there’d be “a huge amount of interest”. All that Rippon needed now was sight of that letter or confirmation from Surrey police that they’d dropped their investigation because of Savile’s age. Jones and MacKean were reassuring but, after repeated attempts, couldn’t produce what was, in their editor’s mind, the make-or-break piece of evidence. When The Mail on Sunday finally got their hands on the letter — almost a year later — they declared it a “fake”.

As his team were pulling their film together, Rippon was talking to his bosses — conversations that were both routine and informal, not designed to flag up any concerns about the Savile investigations. In one, they did talk about the investigation, and the head of news, Helen Boaden, suggested that he should treat Savile as if he were still alive. In other words, the fact that the BBC couldn’t be sued for libel wasn’t enough on its own to put on air very serious allegations that no other media outlet seemed prepared to make.


Investigation came to a full stop

By the end of November, Rippon felt the investigation had hit a brick wall. Surrey police had told the programme they’d dropped their inquiry on the advice of the Crown Prosecution Service for lack of evidence. Without the letter, he couldn’t credibly challenge their version of events. His other doubts about his team’s evidence, his own caution and the fact that he had to achieve an exceptionally high standard of proof left him, he believed, with no alternative. The investigation was over.

Rippon’s editorial focus was narrow. Too narrow. Even so, it should only have meant a pause in the investigation. Instead, it came to a full stop even though there were many options to keep it alive; resuming after the Newsnight Christmas break, collecting more evidence; handing the material Jones and MacKean had collected to another programme – a fairly common way in the BBC of continuing an investigation that looks like eating time and resources; or even involving the central BBC Newsgathering department. None of that happened — which, in due course, added to the suspicion of a cover-up.

The biggest puzzle of all, though, is why Jones didn’t take his and MacKean’s investigation to Panorama. On the day he’d pitched his idea to his own editor, he’d also sent a short email to Tom Giles, the Panorama editor, telling him about the idea. Jones later denied this was a formal pitch. It was, he said, “to keep his options open”. He’d met Giles earlier in 2011 to talk generally about working on long-form investigations for Panorama and they were to meet again. It’s difficult to understand why, if he and MacKean felt as strongly as they claimed to have done that Savile’s victims should have been heard, they didn’t exercise the Panorama option that Jones had so carefully created.


The other side of the BBC’s Jimmy Savile crisis

That failure to continue or find another home for the Savile investigation was a ticking time-bomb. A former detective, Mark Williams-Thomas, had acted as an advisor to the Newsnight investigation. After that was shelved, he teamed up with a freelance TV producer and over the spring and summer of 2012, they pulled together for ITV the documentary Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile. Four weeks before transmission, at the end of the first week of September, the programme makers emailed the BBC press office and the director general with their main allegations, among them that Savile had abused young girls in Television Centre.

If any alarm bells rang inside the BBC, it wasn’t loudly. Those middle weeks of September were, in effect, the handover between the outgoing DG, Mark Thompson, and new man, George Entwistle. Whatever else was on executives’ minds, the gravity of the ITV allegations doesn’t appear to have been high amongst them. Their first response, when it came, was dismissive; a thorough search of the files, the BBC said, revealed an “absence of evidence of any kind” that there’d been abuse on BBC premises. And, for good measure, they added that any allegation they’d withheld evidence from the police was “damaging and false”.

It was the first of many BBC positions that didn’t last. Twenty-four hours before the ITV documentary went out, they seemed less sure about that “absence of evidence”. Or perhaps someone had realised that their dismissive first response was a hostage to fortune. Now, they said, they stood ready to help the police with any inquiries.

The pre-transmission publicity for Exposure generated a squall of press comment. In the middle of it were renewed allegations of a cover-up involving that shelved Newsnight investigation. Rippon was urged to set out a “once and for all” rebuttal. It backfired spectacularly.

On October 2, Rippon posted to the BBC Editors’ Blog what he intended to be a transparent, frank, authoritative account of the “editorial reasons” for halting the investigation – though without setting out in detail his concerns about the evidence. And while he made it clear that the collapse of the Surrey police angle was his main trigger for shelving the inquiry, he didn’t claim that angle was the reason it had begun: “I decided we should pursue the story because of the nature of the allegations …” The Surrey police angle kicked in later: “… and because the key witness told us the police had investigated the claims but the case had been dropped on the grounds he was too old”.

How and why the Newsnight investigation began should have been of little interest to anyone outside the programme’s production offices. Instead, it became a major battleground between BBC executives and Jones and MacKean, feeding rather than quashing those suspicions of a cover-up.

One reason was the interview that David Jordan, the director of editorial policy and standards, gave to the BBC Radio 4’s Media Show on the afternoon of the ITV broadcast. The Newsnight investigation “never started out as an investigation into Jimmy Savile himself; it started off as an investigation into whether the Surrey Police had dropped allegations”, he said. That, rather than Rippon’s more careful formulation in his blog, became the corporate currency. Later, the BBC Chairman Lord Patten insisted that “(the investigation) was largely directed at the behaviour of the police … they originally thought that the story was the dropping of the police investigation”.

It was needless. And it was self-inflicted.


It looked like evasion or worse

But there were real problems with the rest of Rippon’s blog. He tried to rebut other allegations that were in the air – his mistake was to rely on his recollection of what Jones and MacKean had told him 11 months earlier. The programme, he wrote, “had no evidence that anyone from the Duncroft home could or should have known about the allegations … we had no evidence against the BBC … we are confident that all the women we spoke to had contacted the police independently already. We also had no new evidence against any other person that would have helped the police.”

Whether Rippon’s recollection was at fault, whether Jones’s and MacKean’s account was incomplete at the time or whether that account had changed in the interim was irrelevant. The statements were not true. And what had been intended to clear the decks instead looked like evasion or worse.

Jones and MacKean knew Rippon’s blog wouldn’t stand any kind of scrutiny. They told both Rippon and his immediate boss that it needed to be changed but nothing was done immediately. Nor was the opportunity taken to drill down to what exactly had happened or find an account that everyone agreed on and get that out as soon as possible. It would have meant an embarrassing correction – but it must have been clear that one would be necessary at some stage and that earlier was better.

When the Savile Exposure programme went on air, it raised the crisis at the BBC to a new level. Audiences had now seen for themselves the kind of testimony that Newsnight had spiked. And, inevitably, hindsight began to do its work. As more victims broke their silence, the question was: “How could anyone not believe these women?” The BBC now felt that it had to take care to say nothing that implied it disbelieved or dismissed any of Savile’s victims. The big charge overshadowing all else was that dismissing victims was exactly what BBC bosses had done for four decades.

Two days after the ITV documentary, Entwistle sent out an “all staff ” email in which he appeared to repeat the corporate line that Surrey police were the Newsnight team’s initial focus, though his actual words didn’t quite do that: “Newsnight… investigated Surrey police’s inquiry into Jimmy Savile towards the end of 2011”. But Jones read it differently and dashed off an email directly to the DG:

“The investigation was into whether Jimmy Savile was a paedophile — I know because it was my investigation. We didn’t know that Surrey police had investigated Jimmy Savile — no one did — that was what we found when we investigated and interviewed his victims.”

Once again, if alarm bells rang, they rang quietly. Jones had over-interpreted what Entwistle had written, but there was clearly a “lack of clarity” or “difference of perspective” that was going to have to be resolved publicly at some stage. But once again, there was no decisive corporate action and that seems to have left Jones increasingly determined that, if anyone was going to write the script telling the story of his shelved investigation, it would be him and MacKean.

For the remaining two weeks of the media firestorm, the BBC drew its lines in shifting sand. Entwistle appeared on Radio 4’s Today and seemed to rule out any BBC inquiry until the police had finished theirs – that would change. He gave his support to Rippon saying: “On the basis of what he knew at the time, I totally support his judgement. You can’t use hindsight.” That would change, too.

One line didn’t change, though: Entwistle’s account of how little he knew or had wanted to know about the Newsnight investigation. It rang true to BBC insiders, but to the outside world seemed incurious at best, incompetent at worst: “I didn’t know what discoveries, if any, had been made.” Eyebrows raised at breakfast tables across the land: “Did you really not ask?” the Radio 4 homeland muttered into its toast.

Ten days after Rippon’s blog, ten days too late, the BBC announced an “informal” process to try to resolve the “differences of perspective” — it seemed a respectable way of settling what most people now recognised as an internal row and not evidence of a cover-up. But it lasted barely 48 hours. At the end of that week, Entwistle announced that the BBC wasn’t going to wait for the police investigations after all. It was to launch two inquiries of its own; one, into the “culture and practices” of the BBC in the Savile years; the other into “the … management of the Newsnight investigation” during which, he insisted, Rippon would stay in post. That inquiry was to be led by the former Sky News executive, Nick Pollard.

The corporate BBC was now chasing events. Entwistle had been invited by the Culture Select Committee to appear before it and Panorama was rushing together a Savile special which would include the discarded Newsnight testimony. Rippon released Jones to work on the programme, resigned to the inevitability that it would also present the case for the prosecution against him and that the BBC would put up little defence.


Too late in the day

Everyone at the top of the BBC could see they were now in a mess. Almost three weeks into the media firestorm, the BBC chairman, Lord Patten, finally “insisted” Entwistle clear away any inaccuracies and obfuscations in the BBC account, including Rippon’s blog — again, the right thing to do, again too late in the day, especially since it would now mean some spectacular tergiversations.

Rippon’s blog was “corrected”; his “perspective” was now officially “incorrect” or “incomplete” — though without any further explanation, it seemed yet more evidence of a failed cover-up. And, in another about-turn, the Newsnight editor no longer had the DG’s support and was asked to “step aside” while the Pollard review did its work.

No correction was made, though, to the line that the BBC Chairman and senior executives had taken — though not Rippon — that the investigation’s initial focus had been on Surrey police and not Savile himself. That had to be cleared away and was finally and quietly conceded in a statement to Panorama that “the Newsnight investigation did not start out as an investigation into the Surrey police’s handling of the case against Mr Savile”. It failed to explain, though, how and why that had ever become the corporate line.

Entwistle’s appearance before the select committee the following day was an unmitigated disaster, raising rather than lowering the temperature, portraying his management style as hands-off in the extreme and handing those who wanted to bash the BBC more brickbats than they could ever have wished for — the conversation about his Christmas schedules and Newsnight with the head of news, Helen Boaden, that lasted “less than ten seconds”; the assumption that if there was anything he needed to know in the Newsnight investigation someone would tell him; the apparent failure to show any curiosity at all about the investigation. His intention was to show MPs the Chinese wall that stood between him and the BBC’s journalism and which made any pressure from him implausible. Instead, he gave them a detailed picture of the incuriosity that meant he never asked even the most obvious questions of his fellow executives.

But it was his assault on the Newsnight editor that startled and dismayed journalists in every BBC newsroom I visited that day. He told MPs he was “surprised” at Rippon’s decision to shelve the investigation and even speculated on his state of mind at the time. The “investigation ... should have been allowed to continue … further investigation would have been appropriate”. Most dismaying of all, he laid the blame for corporate confusion at Rippon’s door: “I would expect to get a full and complete picture from the editor,” he said, but gave no explanation of why the corporate line and Rippon’s hadn’t matched.

Pollard’s investigation hadn’t even begun, but as far as BBC journalists and editors were concerned, this undermined and pre-judged it. It was hard to see how Pollard could, when he’d looked at all the facts, contradict the DG — or, if he did, how Entwistle could survive.


And it ends …?

It was inevitable that any second crisis on Entwistle’s watch would be catastrophic. That it came so soon, once again involved Newsnight and allegations of child abuse and was based on a piece of extraordinarily shoddy journalism meant it was bound to be fatal.

Entwistle’s honourable and swift resignation didn’t draw a line under the whole affair, though – and it seems likely that trust in the BBC will never return to previous levels, though acting DG Tim Davie has certainly made a robust and determined start, showing the kind of grip that is a precondition to rebuilding any level of public confidence. Perhaps more importantly, though, for BBC journalists this could be the end of hard-hitting investigative journalism on programmes like Newsnight, Today and The World at One.

Once the dust has settled, there’ll be more compliance forms, more compulsory referrals, more systems to ensure anything contentious is signed off at the highest possible level. And more caution. Just as likely, though, given the continuing money pressures on the BBC, is that investigation will be centralised just as newsgathering was many years ago. A “centre of excellence” as it will probably be called, where resources and editorial oversight can be concentrated to produce films and reports to be “reversioned” across BBC programmes and platforms.

Not at all what anyone intended.