LONDON — The BBC did not deliberately cover up sex abuse allegations against one of its most famous hosts in order to go ahead with tribute shows to him after his death, but its decision to drop a news investigation into the accusations was “seriously flawed,” a highly anticipated report released Wednesday says.
After the allegations of serial child sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile came to light on a rival broadcaster, the BBC’s management mounted a confused, inept and completely inadequate response, the report says. The effort showed considerable internal distrust and eventually cost the new director general his job, it notes. High-ranking editors have been suspended.
The chain of events represents the most serious crisis to hit the BBC, one of the world’s biggest media brands, in recent memory and has cost it some measure of public confidence in its journalism, said the report’s author, Nick Pollard.
But “I don’t see any reason why that shouldn’t come back, and probably as strongly as ever,” he added. “I think there’s no fundamental undermining of BBC journalism, and any fall in that [confidence] is temporary.”
Pollard, a prominent former television news executive, was commissioned by the BBC to conduct an independent inquiry into why the corporation chose to kill an investigation of Savile by its program “Newsnight” that was on track to be aired in late 2011.
Savile, an eccentric figure who wore tracksuits and long hair, had died a few months earlier after many years as a children’s television host at the BBC. Other divisions of the broadcasting corporation were planning lavish holiday tributes to him.
Those tributes went ahead, and the “Newsnight” program was shelved. But this year, a rival network broadcast its own investigation of Savile, who is now suspected by police of having been a predatory pedophile responsible for molesting or raping dozens of young girls, some of them on BBC premises.
Pollard’s report, based on interviews and a review of more than 10,000 emails and other documents, concludes that there had not been any undue pressure from senior management to pull the “Newsnight” investigation in order to protect the BBC’s reputation or to continue with the tribute shows. “Newsnight” editor Peter Rippon made an honest but wrong assessment that the evidence in the investigation was not strong enough, the report says.
“The ‘Newsnight’ investigators got the story right,” Pollard said. “The decision by their editor to drop the investigation was clearly flawed and the way it was taken was wrong, but I believe it was done in good faith. It was not done to protect the Savile tribute programs.”
However, once the accusations surfaced on rival network ITV and questions began to be raised about the aborted “Newsnight” program, the BBC responded with breathtaking incompetence, the report says in a particularly damning finding.
Editors worked on partial information, executives did not cooperate with one another and the entire management chain suffered “a complete breakdown in communication,” Pollard said. Director General George Entwistle’s appearance before Parliament to answer questions about the affair was widely billed as a disaster.
“When the full force of the affair broke in October this year, the BBC’s management system proved completely incapable of dealing with it,” Pollard said. “The level of chaos and confusion was even greater than was apparent at the time. Leadership and organization seemed to be in short supply.”
To make matters worse, last month “Newsnight” aired an investigation that falsely accused a Conservative Party grandee of being a pedophile, for which the BBC was forced to make a humiliating apology. Entwistle stepped down as director general several days later, after only a few months on the job.
As a result of Pollard’s report, the deputy director of the BBC’s news operation, Stephen Mitchell, resigned Wednesday. The editorial team of “Newsnight” is to be replaced. Chris Patten, the head of the BBC Trust, said the corporation accepted Pollard’s criticisms and recommendations on better management and oversight unreservedly.
But critics immediately questioned why the BBC has not fired anyone implicated in the scandal over the “Newsnight” programs and the corporation’s bungled response. Liz MacKean, a reporter who worked on the original “Newsnight” program on Savile, criticized her bosses for yanking it from the lineup.
“The decision to drop our story was a breach of our duty to the women who trusted us to reveal that Jimmy Savile was a pedophile. Many found it difficult to share their experiences as vulnerable girls,” MacKean said. “I welcome the recommendation that the BBC should trust its journalists.”
Tim Davie, the acting director general of the BBC, insisted that the scandal has not been without consequence for staff members involved and that the broadcaster is trying to draw the appropriate lessons.
“The director general has left the BBC. The deputy director of news has left the BBC. We’re putting a totally new team into ‘Newsnight,’ ” Davie said. “Go to the report, look at it calmly and think about what’s fair and proportionate. That’s what I’ve done.”
But Ben Bradshaw, a lawmaker from the opposition Labor Party and a former BBC journalist, dismissed Davie’s comments as insufficient.
“People are going to be asking themselves, what has changed? What has changed both in terms of the personnel of BBC news management, and what is changing now, immediately, in terms of the [corporate] culture?” Bradshaw told Sky News. “They need to move quickly in response to this report.”
The results of other inquiries, into whether the BBC fostered a culture that allowed people to ignore their suspicions of a star like Savile and why “Newsnight” came to falsely identify the Conservative Party politician as a pedophile, are still pending.
Scotland Yard is continuing its investigation of the allegations against Savile, who was 84 when he died last year.