Thursday, 25 October 2012

Savile ... and the Panorama pitch


The BBC confirmed to me this morning that the Newsnight ‘Savile’ producer, Meirion Jones, pitched his investigation to Panorama on the same day he pitched it to Newsnight.

The BBC says that in a short, five or six line email to the Panorama editor Tom Giles on 31 October 2011 - two days after Jimmy Savile had died - Jones wrote that he believed he could gather evidence of Savile’s abuse at the Duncroft Home where his aunt had been headmistress. 

The email to Giles was, as he later explained, "to keep his options open”.

Jones had already had one meeting with the Panorama editor to talk in general terms about the possibility of working on longer investigations. And they were due to meet again – but after Newsnight editor Peter Rippon had given Jones and reporter Liz MacKean the green light to start collecting evidence, that meeting never happened.

There was no further contact between the Panorama editor and Jones until pre-programme publicity for the ITV programme Exposure:the other side of Jimmy Savile began to appear in the press. There is no suggestion that Giles looked at any of the evidence gathered for Newsnight nor that he was aware of the detail of the investigation.

Important questions

On Tuesday, BBC Director General George Entwistle told MPs: "we do have to address this question of what comes of journalism that doesn't necessarily result in immediate output".

It's likely that former Sky News executive Nick Pollard will want to know why, when Newsnight producer Jones had an ‘open channel’ to Panorama, he and his reporter did not take their evidence to Giles in December 2011 to make a formal pitch for a half-hour slot.

Soon after the Newsnight investigation was shelved, well-sourced leaks suggested it had been dropped because of pressure from above, to avoid embarrassment over the BBC's planned Christmas Savile tributes and to protect its reputation.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Newsnight, Savile and the DG's real and present danger

I hope that BBC DG George Entwistle’s decision to hold those “internal,independent and forensic” inquiries doesn’t turn out to be his biggest and last as Director General.
Especially the inquiry into Newsnight’s decision to pause its investigation into Surrey police and those allegations that they and/or the Crown Prosecution Service mishandled abuse complaints made against Jimmy Savile.
It’s an inquiry born out of frustration. And it’s easy to see where the frustration comes from.
In spite of the clearest possible denials from all concerned, the suspicion persists that he or another BBC "boss" pressured Newsnight editor Peter Rippon to “pull” a ten or twelve minute film detailing Savile's crimes. 
That's not what happened and, unsurprisingly, there’s never been any evidence that it did. Anyone sane who knows the BBC would have to conclude that Rippon shelved the investigation for sound editorial reasons, not through pressure from above.
Exactly as he and everyone else involved have insisted throughout. Exactly what the Newsnight inquiry will find. 
But that might be the start and not the end of the new DG's real problems. 
Suspicion
Let’s be clear what the suspicion, the allegation, amounts to.
It’s not that Newsnight’s decision to shelve its inquiry was a bad call. Nor that the editor was excessively cautious, influenced by nods or winks or made a decision he thought his bosses wanted with one eye on his career. Though, as it happens, none of that's true either.
Here’s how the Daily Mail, put it: 
“A Newsnight report was due to be screened in December, two months after Savile's death, but was pulled by bosses … attempting to cover up the allegations in an effort to protect (the BBC’s) own reputation.” (My emphasis)
OK?
Once more just to make sure; the important bits anyway: “ …pulled by bosses … attempting to cover up the allegations in an effort to protect (the BBC’s) reputation”.
Got it?
Tabloid priorities
Now, it’s worth saying from the outset that the very tabloids and journalists who've frothed over ‘what must have happened’ at the BBC signally failed even to contemplate let alone launch any investigation of their own into Savile.
If the public record is anything to go by, only one tabloid editor, Paul Connew, ever had the courage  to go after Savile and to explain why nothing came of it.
When he was editor of the Sunday Mirror, he wanted to publish the “credible and convincing” testimony of two of Savile’s victims but was lawyered out.
That was back in 1994 since when, apparently, no other tabloid editor ever lifted a finger to investigate the rumours that were rife in what we used to call Fleet Street. Presumably they were all too busy hacking phones, libelling the McCann family, lynching Chris Jeffries, entrapping the witless and stalking nineteen year old girls
Not even when Savile had died and the risk of libel had passed away with him was there any flicker of interest from the press. Were their safes not full of witness testimony waiting for their briefs' green lights? Apparently not.
Instead, just as Newsnight was ramping up its investigation, the same tabloids that have been spitting outrage at the BBC in the last week were lionising Savile, much as they had during his lifetime, re-running the kind of uncritical profiles that had done as much as anything at the BBC to elevate him to the ‘national treasure’ status he used so effectively to enable and shield his abuse of young women.*
Editorial decisions
The Newsnight investigation was not as the press coverage over the past week or so has portrayed it. Almost every assumption that's been made about it is wrong.
** Update 22/12/12: in the light of the BBC's statement this morning, it's clear that the conversations, statements and accounts on which I based this blog were not complete.** 
For instance, the Newsnight investigation was never into Savile’s criminally abusive activities per se. It was triggered by the charge that Surrey police had dropped a 2007 investigation into 40 year old abuse allegations because Savile, by then, was too old and frail.
Nor was there ever a cut, ten minute or - depending on your reading choice - twelve minute film ready to go that was "pulled". When the Newsnight editor paused the investigation, it was still at the evidence gathering stage ... evidence he was beginning to have doubts about.
In other words, there was nothing to "pull" - there was an investigation in progress and it had hit a brick wall.
There was no script, even, in spite of what's been reported in the press. There was a 'wish list', an ideal script that set out what the investigating team hoped to be able to prove. But it was a catalogue of aspirations some distance beyond what could be supported by the evidence anyone had actually gathered. It's normal, incidentally, to have a wish list like that - something that everyone can work from that sets out what you'd need to be able to prove to get an investigation on air.
There was little more, in fact, than the rushes of one interview with the investigation's 'star' witness/victim, Karin Ward, and a clutch of telephone conversations with other women apparently echoing her allegations.
One was with 'Fiona' who went on to give evidence to the ITV expose.
'Fiona' claimed to have a letter from Surrey police setting out how they’d decided not to pursue her allegations against Savile because of his age and frailty. It would have been crucial corroboration but, in spite of several requests, she failed ever to produce it to the Newsnight team. The Mail on Sunday has now reported evidence that the letter is a "fake".
There were other question marks, too, over the 'corroborating' testimony. How it had been gathered and whether the women's connections via a social networking site had had any influence on their testimony, serious and credible though it seemed to be.
Denials
But there was more.
When the programme put the allegation to the Crown Prosecution Service - that Surrey police had dropped their investigation because of Savile's age and frailty - they denied it point blank.
The CPS said that one of their lawyers had reviewed the Surrey police investigation and advised them to take no further action because of “lack of evidence”.
They told Newsnight that:
"As this is the case, it would not be correct to say that his age and frailty was the reason for no further action being taken."
There was nowhere for the investigation to go - certainly not in the time before the programme came off-air for its Christmas break.
But it was neither "pulled" nor "dropped". It was paused, shelved for sound editorial reasons and those alone. And without pressure, direct or subtle, from above.
Danger
The danger for the DG is that the Newsnight inquiry will establish exactly all of this ... and to the satisfaction of all but the most eye-swivelling.
Danger, too, that it will show exactly what Entwistle has insisted all along. That as Head of BBC Vision and responsible for the network planning to run the Savile tributes, he had only a vague awareness of the Newsnight inquiry. That he, quite understandably, kept at arms length from what was happening in another BBC division ... precisely to avoid allegations of interference.  
That will turn the Newsnight question on its head.
From ‘why did Newsnight shelve its investigation?’ to ‘why didn’t the Head of Vision shelve the tributes once he knew that a BBC programme – or indeed any other part of the media – was finally investigating Savile?’
That's the real and present danger to the BBC and to its DG.

*Update: I'm grateful for a tip from Richard Fletcher, the editor of Telegraph.co.uk, pointing up an article in The Lawyer back in 2008 which reported that Savile began legal action against The Sun after articles linking him with Haut de Garenne, the Jersey children's home.
According to The Lawyer, The Sun carried a photograph of Savile allegedly visiting Haut de Garenne and followed it with "a series of articles. One asserted that Savile was unwilling to assist with the police investigation and another that he admitted having visited the home". 
The Sun also criticised Savile for being unprepared to “go some way to fixing it for the victims”.
I agree that this makes The Sun's post-mortem tributes to Savile even more extraordinary.