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The Jimmy Savile scandal exposes a flaw in BBC systems which must be addressed

2012 October 23
by Paul Vallely

George Entwistle was on a hiding to nothing when he appeared before a Commons select committee yesterday to answer questions on the BBC and how one of its top television stars, Jimmy Savile, had got away with sexually-abusing underage girls for decades. The new Director General of the BBC did not get off to a good start. He appeared under-informed, under-briefed and under-prepared in the face of hostile and aggressive questioning from MPs allowing them to criticise him for a “lamentable lack of knowledge” and “amazing lack of curiosity” in his failure to ask more questions when he was first told that a Newsnight investigation into Savile might scupper plans for BBC Christmas tributes to the late presenter.

But as the questioning proceeded the mild-mannered BBC boss began to be more persuasive. Partly this emerged by contrast to some bombastic grandstanding from the politicians. But partly it was because it became patently clear that Mr Entwistle was not the man to have become embroiled in any kind of cover-up at the BBC. He was firm in his view that the Newsnight investigation should have been allowed to continue to gather further evidence. And he was quietly incisive in removing the Newsnight editor, Peter Rippon, who axed the inquiry with a blog which was neither accurate nor honest, in Entwistle’s words.

The Director General also shrewdly analysed that he was being accused of two contradictory things – exerting undue influence on Newsnight and standing too far back from editorial decisions. What became clear was that he saw his job as overseeing a series of arms-length processes which would ensure editorial independence and allow him to act as the final court of appeal were those processes to fail. Mr Entwistle could have answered many of the questions by repeating that he had set up two separate inquiries which would provide the answers MPs demanded. This would have gone down very badly so he avoided that and took the blows as a result.

The BBC is a massive organisation and the procedures it has developed over the years clearly work well for the overwhelming majority of its output.  But they clearly do not cope with cross-departmental emergencies like this. Neither of his two inquiries will address that, but Mr Entwistle needs to. The BBC needs systems to ensure that material from its journalistic inquiries, even if it cannot be published, should inform its wider policy. Newsnight may not have had the evidence demanding editorial standards require but the BBC knew enough to decide to axe the tributes to Savile. Mr Entwistle has been a prisoner of progress. He needs to find a way of breaking free of that when a crisis requires.

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