BBC boss’s Savile claim ‘barely credible’

The Independent – Oct 14, 2012

The BBC director general’s claim that he did not ask what Newsnight’s Jimmy Savile investigation was about has been described by BBC insiders as “barely credible” and “ridiculous” as the growing row threatens to split Newsnight journalists.

George Entwistle’s insistence that he never asked about the nature of the Newsnight investigation has been derided by commentators and journalists.

There is also evidence of “extreme tension” in the Newsnight newsroom after its editor, Peter Rippon, not only dropped its Savile investigation but then d id not follow up on Newsnight for nearly two weeks after ITV screened a documentary.

The flames of dissent were fanned further yesterday when the BBC said that Peter Rippon’s decision to drop the programme will not be investigated, as the Savile scandal reached Kenneth Clarke, who was Health Secretary when Savile was appointed to a senior role at Broadmoor, where he is alleged to have abused girls.

Mr Clarke, told Channel 4 News: “I have no recollection of ever having met Jimmy Savile and no recollection of these events. The Department of Health is rightly now investigating to establish the facts.”

At a press conference on Friday, Mr Entwistle said he knew Newsnight was “looking” at Jimmy Savile but he did not ask further questions to ensure “independence of news and current affairs”. He added he did not want to be seen to be putting any pressure on a BBC investigation.

The media commentator Steve Hewlett, who presents Radio 4′s The Media Show, yesterday said Mr Entwistle’s position that he did not ask about the allegations was “simply implausible”. “The idea that he didn’t know is barely credible,” he said.

David Elstein, the former chief executive of Channel 5, said he would have to be “pretty brain dead” not to investigate the programme’s subject matter. He said that Mr Entwistle would not have landed the top job if the allegations had broken when Mr Thompson was in charge.

At a press conference on Friday, Mr Entwistle told reporters that Helen Boaden (head of news) had told him that Newsnight was planning a programme about Savile. He said that he said “thanks for letting me know”, but that he asked no questions about the matter. A senior BBC newsroom source said: “It defies credibility that he didn’t try to find this out. The idea that, as head of vision, in charge of the Christmas schedule, he just said ‘thanks for letting me know’ is ridiculous.

“The best thing you can say is he looks completely incurious to the point of being irresponsible. He looks hopeless.”

The source added that Newsnight journalists have been left deflated by Mr Entwistle’s response and baffled by a decision not to run the story on Newsnight until Thursday, which left the newsroom “extremely tense” and “looking stupid”. “You have a huge national story that was not mentioned on Newsnight until 10 or 11 days after it blew up. [The newsroom] is getting uncomfortable. It is very tense. It is a ludicrous situation.”

On Mr Rippon’s insistence that the story was not good enough to air, the source said: “He did everything he could to make it impossible for the story to run… In most newsrooms if you are not quite there [with a story] you would just keep going.”

It is understood the Newsnight team had spoken to at least 10 women, including witnesses and victims. A script was written at an early stage because the team realised Mr Rippon might come under pressure to drop the investigation. One newsroom insider said: “It was compelling stuff. We were within days of going with it. The programme wasn’t cut and finished. But all the heavy lifting had been done.”

News that the investigation was not to be broadcast was delivered verbally. There may be no email trail, said the insider. There was an ambivalent attitude within the Newsnight team, but, according to one insider, that was because only a few people were aware of how strong the material was.

But another source countered that Mr Rippon had the backing of most of the newsroom. He said: “There has been overwhelming support for him, except from a dissident cell from what one might call the production team.”

The source stressed that Mr Rippon did not kill the story, but admitted that he was aware of the planned tribute pieces to Savile, which were aired over the Christmas period. But they said that Mr Rippon told journalists that this had made no difference to his decision.

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