BBC clears executives of cover-up in Savile case
Thursday 20 Dec 2012 8:27 a.m.
By Raphael Satter
A BBC review has absolved senior executives of trying to bury an explosive story about one of its best-known children's television stars, saying management errors were to blame for the fact that a planned expose on paedophilia allegations against the late Jimmy Savile was cancelled.
Institutional chaos and confusion - but not a cover-up - were to blame for the BBC's disastrous decision to scupper the Newsnight program, the review found Wednesday.
"The Newsnight investigators got the story right," Pollard told journalists following the review's publication. "They had found clear and compelling evidence that Jimmy Savile was a paedophile."
When the rival ITV network broadcast a similar expose in October about Savile, who died in 2011 at age 84, the BBC came under fire for both harbouring an alleged serial sex abuser for decades and for killing its own story about him.
The scandal quickly metastasised, tainting the reputation of the BBC - the publicly-funded British broadcaster known worldwide for its news and entertainment divisions. It also prompted the resignation of the BBC's brand new director-general, George Entwistle, and raised questions about its former leader, Mark Thompson, who has since become chief executive at The New York Times.
The BBC's decision to cancel its initial investigation was particularly embarrassing, since it preceded a glowing tribute program honouring Savile's career. A host of misleading and contradictory statements about the investigation in the weeks that followed only deepened suspicion that senior executives had tried to bury the story to protect the corporation's reputation.
Pollard cleared the executives of that - the most serious - charge, saying that although the decision to scrap the program "was clearly flawed ... I believe it was taken in good faith."
Pollard had a harsh verdict on the BBC's behaviour in the aftermath of the scandal, saying the corporation took more than a month to get its story straight in the midst of what he called "a complete breakdown of communication."
"There was a critical lack of leadership and coordination," he said, describing an atmosphere of recrimination, mistrust, and mismanagement. Pollard even quoted James Hardy, the then-BBC communications chief, as promising to "drip poison" about one of the Newsnight reporters he suspected of leaking stories to the press.
The review - which cost the BBC about £2 million (roughly US$3.3 million) - had harsh words for several executives in particular. One of those criticised, the BBC's Deputy Director of News Steve Mitchell, announced his resignation as the report was made public.
The BBC said that other members of staff still faced disciplinary action or were being moved to new jobs.
Pollard's report does not appear to challenge Thompson's account of his role in the scandal, which has disquieted some at The New York Times. Chris Patten, head of the BBC Trust, said after the review was published that he has "no reason at all for disbelieving" the former director general.
Meanwhile, the scandal over Savile continues to draw more arrests. So far eight suspects have been questioned, the latest on Wednesday when police said that a man in his 70s had been detained in connection with the investigation. Police say Savile is a suspect in 199 crimes recorded so far, including dozens of cases of rape.
Other suspects arrested include former pop star Gary Glitter, whose real name is Paul Gadd, singer Freddie Starr, and high-profile publicist Max Clifford. Starr and Clifford deny any wrongdoing; Gadd, who has previously been convicted of child sex offenses, has yet to speak publicly about his arrest.
A separate report also published Wednesday found the BBC had committed a "grave breach" of its editorial guidelines when it aired a Newsnight broadcast last month wrongly linking a politician to child sex abuse allegations.
Two additional internal inquiries are still in the works. One, led by former Appeal Court judge Janet Smith, is investigating the culture and practices of the BBC during Savile's tenure there. Another, led by lawyer Dinah Rose, is examining how the corporation has handled complaints of sexual harassment.
Other inquiries spawned by the scandal include a Department of Health investigation into decision to involve Savile in the management of Britain's Broadmoor psychiatric hospital in the 1980s, and an inquiry into prosecutors' decision not to prosecute Savile in 2009.