BBC on Savile-Pedophilia Scandal: ‘Most Sensitive’ News Investigations Get Upper Tier Review

October 24, 2012 - 1:16 PM

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George Entwistle, who has replaced Mark Thompson as director general of the BBC and who gave evidence this week in the House of Commons about the Savile-BBC scandal. (AP)

(CNSNews.com) – British lawmakers investigating the BBC’s handling of a child sex scandal involving the late TV host Jimmy Savile were told by the corporation’s new director general, George Enwistle, that investigative reports by its news division are not “routinely” reviewed by top management, a claim that was partially walked back by David Jordan, the BBC’s chief of editorial policy, who said that some of “the most sensitive investigations … do eventually get up to the director level, sometimes even to the director general.”

In late 2011, a BBC Newsnight report on Savile, a long-time BBC employee and British cultural icon who allegedly engaged in numerous acts of pedophilia, some on BBC property, was shelved shortly before broadcast. A year later, on Oct. 3, 2012, a report on Savile by the rival network ITV was broadcast, an expose that has ignited a firestorm in Britain and helped spark the House of Commons investigation.

The BBC director general at the time the Newsnight report was shelved was Mark Thompson, who has been named to take over as CEO of the New York Times in November.

At Tuesday’s House of Commons hearing, the BBC’s David Jordan said that the “most delicate and most sensitive investigations” have risen to the level of review by the director general and editor in chief.

“The most delicate, the most significant, the most sensitive investigations, some of the biggest ones that I’ve been involved in do eventually get up to the director level, sometimes even to director general,” Jordan said.

Jordan, who according to his biography on the BBC’s website “produces the BBC's editorial guidelines and provides advice to BBC programme-makers and journalists across all BBC services on how to produce content which complies with the BBC's editorial guidelines,” made his remarks after BBC Director General Enwistle was grilled by member of parliament Damian Collins.

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Former BBC Presenter Jimmy Savile (1926-2011), who allegedly sexually abused young girls for decades, including instances reportedly on BBC property. (AP)

Collins pressed Entwistle about the decision to spike the Newsnight investigative report about Savile and his alleged sexual abuse of young girls, including on BBC property, over the 30 years he hosted TV and radio programs for the BBC. Savile was a hugely popular figure in British society; also, he had been knighted by the Queen of England  and had received a papal knighthood from Pope John Paul II.

Collins asked why a child sex-crime investigation about Savile, a British cultural icon, would not attract the attention of top executives.

“But would not a program being made by one of the BBC’s flagship news programs bringing forward very serious criminal allegations about someone who was an icon to children in this country created as an icon by the BBC,” Collins said.

“An icon for very vulnerable people as a result of his celebratory BBC status – would the creation of a program like that or even the preparation for broadcast of a program like that not routinely have gone to the editor-in-chief for consideration as to whether it was fit to go?” Collins said.

“No, it wouldn’t have routinely gone to the editor in chief,” Entwistle said.

Jordan interjected that the spiked Newsnight story about Savile’s alleged abuse, which was exposed by rival media outlet ITV in an Oct. 3, 2012 documentary, did not rise to the attention of top managers because its “transmission,” or broadcast, had not been finalized.

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Former BBC Director General Mark Thompson, now incoming CEO of The New York Times Company. (AP)

But when another Member of Parliament (MP) questioned Entwistle further about the investigation and which managers had reviewed it, the BBC director  general denied knowledge about whether that had taken place.

MP: “If I understood you correctly, you’ve confirmed today that the decision to drop the Newsnight investigation was referred up to (Director of News) Helen Boaden and (Deputy Director of News) Steve Mitchell, is that correct?”

Enwistle: “No, I don’t know that the decision to drop it was referred up, but there were definitely conversations about it.”

Then the MP questioned David Jordan, who modified his explanation of the production status of the Newsnight report but did not clarify who knew about the decision to pull it.

MP: “David Jordan said a few moments ago something that puzzled me, which was that this investigation or the program about the investigation, the Newsnight program, hadn’t actually been commissioned but I understand it, it had a transmission date of the 7th of December [2011] and was killed on the 5th of December, so it must have been commissioned.”

Jordan: “Yeah, I think what I meant by that is that it hadn’t been given the final go ahead to go to air. There were obviously plans in process that if it made its target, if it was evidentially okay, if it all stood up, then it could go to air, but--”

MP: “So you’d like to correct your earlier --”

Jordan: “But clearly you have to go through those processes before anything goes to air.”

MP: “So it had been commissioned?”

Jordan: “Commissioned, well, it had been commissioned in the sense that it was started.

What I meant by commissioned was, there wasn’t a probe, there wasn’t a final script – which I would have got – never a final script, and therefore the final say so, the final go ahead had not been given.”

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The New York Times building in New York City. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

According to a BBC program into the scandal on its Panorama show, which aired on Monday, the Savile investigative piece was scheduled to be broadcast on Dec. 7, 2011 but was pulled on Dec. 5, just weeks after Savile died at age 84. The BBC later that month aired tribute shows to Savile, touting his philanthropic efforts that raised millions of pounds sterling for British hospitals and other charities.

Savile worked at the BBC from 1964 until his retirement in 1994 and hosted popular shows for children and teens, including “Top of the Pops” and “Jim’ll Fix It.”

Since the airing of the ITV documentary that featured women who claim to have been sexually assaulted by Savile when they were teenagers, more than 400 “lines of inquiry” have been reported to police. Some of the victims were students at a school for troubled girls and others said they were abused in Saville’s dressing room at the BBC.

Enwistle, who has worked at the BBC since 1989 and had several editing and producing stints at Newsnight before heading up its television division, was tapped as CEO (“director general”) in July. He replaced Mark Thompson, who was BBC director general before stepping down to become the new president and CEO of the New York Times Company.

Thompson, part of whose career at the BBC coincided with Savile’s time with the corporation for some 15 years (1979-1994), issued a statement after the scandal broke that he “never heard allegations or complaints” about the accused pedophile during his tenure as top executive at the BBC, a position he held from 2004 through mid-August 2012; Thompson’s career at the BBC, in various editorial and production positions, was from 1979 to 2002, and then 2004-2012.

Thompson has said he had no knowledge about the decision to spike the BBC’s investigation into Savile.

Thompson is expected to take the helm at the New York Times next month. According to British news reports, Thompson may be called to give evidence in the House of Commons about the Savile scandal.

In an Oct. 24 commentary, the NYT’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, wrote about Thompson and the BBC scandal. She said that George Entwistle is being grilled on the topic by Parliament but that it was Mark Thompson who was the BBC director general “when all of this was going on last year.”

She further stated that Times reporters and editors “were reminded on Monday in a style note not to refer to him in articles as the current president and chief executive.”

As for Thompson’s denial that he knew nothing about the Newsnight investigation of Savile, Sullivan wrote: “How likely is it that he knew nothing? A director general of a giant media company is something like a newspaper’s publisher. Would a publisher be very likely to know if an investigation of one of its own people on sexual abuse charges had been killed? The answer to that is not as easy as it sounds.”

“And for that matter, how likely is it that the Times Company will continue with its plan to bring Mr. Thompson on as chief executive?” said Sullivan. “His integrity and decision-making are bound to affect The Times and its journalism — profoundly. It’s worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events.”

Michael W. Chapman contributed to this report.