George Entwistle, the director-general of the BBC, appeared today in front of the House of Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport select committee – and faced difficult questions from MPs over his decision in 2011 to run a tribute programme to Jimmy Savile, the now-disgraced host of Jim’ll Fix It and Top of the Pops.
An investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by Savile – who died earlier in 2011, aged 84 – had been commenced by Newsnight, but was dropped by the BBC2 programme’s editor, Peter Rippon.
This decision – itself investigated last night by a special edition of Panorama – was discussed in detail by Entwistle and the panel of MPs. But the question that seemed to trouble the director-general most was why, in his previous position as director of vision at the BBC, he ran a Christmas tribute to Savile despite knowing that Newsnight had at one point been investigating the former BBC presenter.
The committee observed that Entwistle’s “lack of curiosity” about the contents of the Newsnight report, whether or not it eventually aired, was “extraordinary” when a high-profile tribute to Savile was being prepared.
Entwistle was asked about a conversation he had, most likely on 2 December 2011, with director of news Helen Boaden. Entwistle, who said he was recalling the brief conversation as best he could, told the MPs: “Helen said to me, I wanted to tell you that Newsnight are looking at Jimmy Savile and if it comes off, if it stands up… it may have an impact on your Christmas schedule. I said, thanks for letting me know, please update me.
“The key message I took away,” Entwistle added, “was that it wasn’t yet clear to Helen whether it was going to stand up or not. We never spoke about it again, from which I inferred that the decision had been made not to proceed…. I felt I had taken everything I needed to know from that conversation.”
“Obviously, this is something I’ve reflected on a lot,” Entwistle said.
Pressed by the committee on whether even an unaired investigation into Savile should have been of interest to him on the eve of a glowing tribute to the same BBC presenter, Entwistle explained that he had been determined “not to show an undue interest” in newsgathering, and that news departments must be given as much autonomy as possible. “Perhaps I was being over-sensitive,” he said.
Entwistle also said: “I’ve been accused of intervening, of getting the Newsnight investigation stopped out of a desire to protect the Jimmy Savile programmes, and accused of not having shown enough interest in the Jimmy Savile programmes.
“I was trying to find the right place on that line.”
On Newsnight not running their Savile report, Entwistle said: “The decision was made by Peter Rippon on his own account.”
Asked how he could know that for sure, Entwistle clarified that this was to the best of his current knowledge and that such questions were a matter for the independent review into the BBC’s handling of the Savile affair, which is to be chaired by former head of Sky News Nick Pollard. Entwistle said he expected the Pollard review to take four to six weeks to reach a conclusion.
Paul Farrelly MP pressed Entwistle on whether Rippon had made his decision alone: “Who sat on him?” he asked. “Who helped him change his mind?”
“Was it not possible that he changed his mind?” Entwistle replied. “It does not need any external agent for Peter Rippon to change his mind.”
Entwistle said he could not recall a “significant disagreement… of such virulence” as the one between Rippon and the two journalists working on the Savile story, Meirion Jones and Liz Mackean. Rippon spiked the report on the grounds that investigations into Surrey Police’s handling of the case had not produced a strong enough story – but as their appearance on last night’s Panorama made clear, Jones and Mackean considered that their filmed testimony from Savile’s victims independently deserved to be aired. Jones has now left Newsnight and is attached to Panorama, Entwistle revealed.
Rippon published a blog on 2 October explaining his decision, but the BBC was forced to correct him in a statement issued yesterday. Entwistle said the original inaccuracy was a “matter for regret”, and that he understood that the Rippon blog had been “seen” by deputy director of news Steve Mitchell. Rippon has been asked by Entwistle to “step aside” from his position as Newsnight editor.
Entwistle admitted that, having viewed last night’s Panorama, he was left with the impression that Newsnight should have gone ahead with their report about Savile. He also conceded that the BBC needed “to look at” what happens to investigative material that is not broadcast.
Entwistle additionally promised to look into why the BBC had decided, in early 2012, not to proceed with a mooted revival of Jim’ll Fix It.
The director-general did not agree that the BBC’s recent handling of the Savile scandal had been poor or chaotic, instead insisting that the Corporation’s willingness to “interrogate its own corporate handling of things is unmatched in the world” and that this was “a symptom of health”.