Jeremy Vine had clearly been dreading the question. He’d regaled the audience at Cheltenham Literature Festival with amusing anecdotes from his autobiography, and the evening was drawing to a close. Then a hand was raised: what would Vine have done about the Jimmy Savile story, were he still on Newsnight?
“This is a complete and utter nightmare,” sighed Vine, who presented BBC2’s flagship current affairs programme for three years. It was unclear whether he meant being put on the spot, or the crisis engulfing Newsnight.
Cautiously, the Radio 2 presenter continued.
“If the material that they shelved is the same material that ITV put out, then that’s very serious.” Rushing on, he added: “But I’m not sure that it was. The biggest concern is that there was any kind of link-up between the hagiographers on BBC1 and the exposé on BBC2.
“I think this was more of a situation where the organisation was somewhat dislocated. I don’t think anybody had on their desk at any one time: exposé BBC2, hagiography BBC1 [and decided] ‘OK, we can’t run that.’ If that has happened, that is an absolute scandal.”
Vine was careful not to inculpate his old colleague Peter Rippon: “I honestly don’t believe the editor of Newsnight was spoken to and told not to run it. But unfortunately it looks [to some people] like they didn’t run the exposé because they were running the tribute, and that is why it is such a toxic thing.”
He refrained from uttering the question on the lips of many BBC employees at the festival, who whispered anxiously in corners: “where’s Jeremy Paxman?” Newsnight’s anchor has built his reputation on asking awkward questions but has been noticeably quiet now the tables have turned. “It’s the biggest crisis Newsnight’s ever had,” muttered one broadcaster, who wished to remain anonymous – “Where oh where is Paxo?”
The scandal reared its ugly head again in a talk about another of the BBC’s news programmes: Today on Radio 4. Presenter Evan Davis doubted Newsnight’s exposé was scrapped because it would torpedo BBC1’s Jimmy Savile tribute. “In my own experience, the BBC is not competently enough run for that to have happened,” he said. “They can’t organise anything.”
Ceri Thomas, editor of Today, agreed: “If you think BBC news is monolithic and centrally controlled, then that certainly has never been my experience of it. I never tell people senior to me in the chain what we are doing day-to-day. They’ll hear it – like everybody else does – when they put the radio on. That’s been my experience for the last 20 years of the BBC.
“If you’re doing something that risks the programme’s reputation, that could blow up in your face and cause some sort of legal or other problem, then I will flag that up,” admitted Thomas. “But that’s rare. I will flag it so those people are in a position to deal with the questions coming as a result of us doing that, rather than [to debate]: is it right or wrong?”
The night before, Vine had promised festival-goers that the director-general would get to the bottom of it: “George Entwistle has got huge integrity and he will find out what happened here. They’re going to have to tell us. It’s a really, really big issue.”