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Monday, October 22, 2012 

The BBC leaves an open goal. Again.

It's all but impossible to overstate just what a catastrophic decision the now ex-Newsnight editor Peter Rippon made when he spiked the Jimmy Savile investigation pieced together by reporter Liz MacKean and producer Meirion Jones.  Working barely a month after Savile's death, it now seems apparent that there was just enough evidence for a report to have been broadcast. Indeed, on its own the revelation that Savile had been investigated by Surrey police, even if no charges were brought for lack of evidence, ought to have been enough to get something on the air.

Had Peter Rippon not for reasons still unknown ended the investigation, we might now be experiencing the opposite to what has happened since ITV's Exposure was broadcast at the beginning of the month.  While it's obvious that there would still be major questions about who knew what, if anything about Savile's proclivities beyond rumours, and almost certainly an investigation into the culture at Television Centre during Savile's time at the BBC, we wouldn't now be having to endure the Mail and much of the rest of the media's latent schadenfreude at the corporation's difficulties.  The BBC's coverage both of the phone hacking scandal and then the Leveson inquiry is well and truly being avenged.  It's even possible the corporation would be getting a certain amount of grudging praise for investigating itself, too late for Savile to be brought to account or not.

Quite how the BBC has managed to respond so ineffectively and poorly is a mystery.  The corporation's incredibly well paid managers really do seem to have learned absolutely nothing, whether from Sachsgate or indeed from the phone hacking debacle.  The obvious lesson from both crises, one serious and one not so much, is that you have to get your investigations, apologies and statements out as quickly as possible while at the same time making sure that they're as accurate as can be.  If you don't, then you can't possibly complain when you get turned over.  In this instance, the BBC has fallen at almost every hurdle: its initial statements were either inadequate, or as it now turns out in the case of Peter Rippon's blog post, inaccurate.  The corporation didn't apologise quick enough, nor did it set-up the independent investigations into what happened until far too late.

These failures have been exacerbated further by how it's apparent that those at the top of the BBC were aware of Newsnight's initial investigation, and yet did nothing to prepare for just such an eventuality as this one.  They must have known it was possible that the allegations would be followed up by someone else, especially when the disquiet in the newsroom at Rippon's decision was soon leaked to the press, with the Oldie even going so far as to make direct accusations against Savile.

The key question remains why Rippon decided that the broadcast could not go ahead, one which the specific investigation into Newsnight has to uncover quickly.  Highly doubtful though is the claim that Rippon either came under direct pressure from those higher-up in the BBC to drop the investigation, or that the forthcoming tributes to Savile, which hardly made up a substantial part of the BBC's Christmas schedule were thought as more important than exposing a man now being described, possibly hyperbolically, as one of the most prolific child sex offenders the country has seen.

Far more likely is that is Rippon, completely mistakenly, decided of his own accord that the story was just too potentially toxic for the amount of evidence that had been put together.  You can see his predicament: Newsnight only had on camera, in person testimony from Karin Ward, with the other statements coming from women who had been at the Duncroft approved school in the 70s who weren't prepared to appear in the film.  Ward's allegations, and I'm not doubting them here for a second, almost seem too good to be true from a journalistic point of view: she alleges that as well as being abused by Savile, she also saw Gary Glitter having sex with a girl in the alcove of Savile's dressing room.  Ward did indeed appear on a show with both Savile and Glitter, but the inclusion of the country's most notorious "celebrity" paedophile was always going to ring alarm bells.  Add in how the Crown Prosecution Service had decided not to press charges, Surrey police having spent what the Telegraph is now reporting as 2 years investigating possible abuse at Duncroft, and you can almost understand why Rippon bottled out at the last moment.

Almost, but not quite.  It reminds of the BBC's (and Newsnight's) cowardice in the Trafigura case, deciding to settle rather than contest a lawsuit from Carter-Fuck over the programme's report that Trafigura's dumping of toxic sludge in the Ivory Coast had killed rather than simply injured those who came into contact with it, despite an UN report concluding there had been deaths.  The reporter in that instance was... Liz MacKean.  No wonder that both she and her producer feel so strongly that Rippon was wrong, with Meirion Jones predicting at the time in an email that regardless of the reality, should someone else follow up the story it would be seen as a cover-up.

So it has come to pass.   Quite clearly there is the the usual amount of humbug from the press, whom with the exception of the Sunday Mirror in 1994 completely failed to investigate Savile at all, leaving it to ITV to do the hard work once Newsnight had bowed out.  It's also laughable for the Sun of all papers to take the moral high ground when News International so spectacularly failed to investigate phone hacking at the News of the World until it was forced into it at the beginning of last year, just the four years after Clive Goodman and Glenn Mulcaire were sent down.  The BBC was positively sprightly by contrast in realising the seriousness of the allegations against it.  It's also clear that the BBC can investigate itself to an extent that the rest of the media can't or won't, even if the full inquiries must be independent: tonight's Panorama is evidence of that.  Nor is it true this is the BBC's worst crisis in 50 years, even if it was John Simpson who said so.  Has everyone already forgotten the Hutton whitewash when both the director general and chairman of the BBC resigned?

The sad fact is though, as so often in the past, this is a disaster of the BBC's own making.  Some might well point to that very Hutton inquiry and to the extra compliance regulations brought in after Sachsgate as explanation as to why the BBC has been timid and overly cautious ever since, but neither stopped the corporation from broadcasting the documentaries which exposed abuse in both secure and care homes.  It may very well turn out that this is a simple case of an enormous mistake by an editor, and of a culture in the past that was all but universal, but that doesn't explain the BBC's incompetence once the allegations finally came to light.  At a time when public service broadcasting is still in peril, regardless of the collapse of the BSkyB-News Corp merger, the last thing the BBC needed was to leave an open goal for their enemies to attack.

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According to Panorama, Rippon did not even view the material they had. Then he stopped not just the transmission but also the investigation.
What sort of investigative journalism is that? They have a story of potentially huge public interest but not quite enough solid information ... so they just drop it instead of looking further.
Then Rippon gave misleading statements on why the programme was stopped.
And Entwistle did not wake up in the middle of the night wondering what would happen if a newspaper broke the story on the morning of their tribute programme.
It might be gigantic cock-up rather than conspiracy but there are still questions about the BBC with no sensible answers.

The idea of a BBC conspiracy is simply gibberish - even if the paedo allegations were likely to have undermined Xmas scheduling, Rippon (if cynically minded) could have simply resumed the Newsnight investigation after Xmas.

Far more likely that Rippon simply lost his nerve. As you point out, the story was too explosive, and the evidence (then) too slight.

Tode: agreed. Clearly we need to hear from Rippon exactly why he stopped the investigation outright rather than saying keep searching, and it's possible, if still not likely that he had worries about the upcoming tributes if they kept working but still couldn't pull it all together. Whether he feared going to his superiors though is quite different from them directly putting pressure on him, for which as yet there's no evidence whatsoever for.

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