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The questions the BBC’s new Director General must answer on the Savile scandal

2012 October 22
by Paul Vallely

Barely a month into the job the new Director General of the BBC, George Entwistle, finds himself in serious trouble over allegations that one of his flagship news outlets dropped an investigation into allegations of sex abuse by the late Jimmy Savile because the corporation was preparing a major Christmas tribute to the man who was once one of its most popular entertainers.

When the truth emerges it may be of confusion rather than conspiracy in the senior echelons of the BBC. But Mr Entwistle has a number of awkward questions to answer today when he appears before a House of Commons committee. The revelations in last night’s Panorama into the dropped Newsnight investigation has only added to them. So has the decision that Newsnight’s editor, Peter Rippon, “step aside” from his job after embarrassing admissions that his initial explanation for dropping the probe was inaccurate and incomplete.

But the most difficult questions concern the role of Mr Entwistle himself. Why, in his old job as head of television, did he go ahead with broadcasting the Savile tribute after being told that Newsnight were investigating him? What exactly was he told by the Head of News, Helen Boaden, last December? Why did he not ask for more detail about the nature of the investigation? The suggestion that he believed it was not his place to interfere in the work of another BBC department reveal questions about his judgement.

There are other questions. What did Helen Boaden, and her deputy, say to Mr Rippon when he discussed the investigation with them? Why did he so rapidly change his views of the story?  Why, if he felt the evidence was insufficient, did he drop the investigation rather then instructing his journalists to search for further corroborative evidence?  The BBC exists, above all, on the basis of the trust of its audience, it chairman Lord Patten has said recently. Answers to these questions are essential if trust is to be preserved.

Having said that, it is important that the public focus is not diverted into side-issues about how the Savile affair should have been best reported.  After a preliminary analysis of 400 lines of inquiry, involving more than 200 potential victims, Scotland Yard has launched a formal investigation into allegations of crimes by living individuals suspected of being complicit or negligent in situations which allowed the former tv star to abuse children not just on BBC premises but in Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Leeds General Infirmary, at Broadmoor and elsewhere within the National Health Service. That is where the iniquity of the Jimmy Savile case must be most closely scrutinised and lessons learned to ensure that the lax culture which permitted such abuse has been rooted out.

Systemic failure extends even beyond the places where such abuse took place. There are questions to be asked about how Savile appears to have used his status as a charity fundraiser and television presenter to get access to places where there were vulnerable teenage girls he could abuse. There are questions about why those sections of the media which are now using the Savile scandals a stick with which to beat the BBC – often as part of a commerical war they are waging with the public service broadcaster – did not themselves expose the presenter over the long decades of his abusing.

The BBC is damned if it does and damned if it does not in the present situation, though the irony is, of course, as the Panorama programme showed, there is something admirable about an organisation which is willing to train its investigative sights on it own failings so publicly. Criticism of the BBC must be kept in proportion.


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