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Publish Savile report in full, Lord Patten, or be damned. This calamitous blow to the BBC cannot be censored
By Kevin Marsh 17th February 2013
Four months ago, the BBC was facing its biggest crisis in more than 90 years over its calamitous handling of the Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal. As new revelations piled up, accusations and counter-accusations threatened to engulf the Corporation.
In those dark and desperate days, the BBC appointed Nick Pollard, former head of Sky News, to review its procedures. Later this week he will publish the full details of what is undoubtedly one of the most important reports in its history. And yet its very publication threatens to plunge the Corporation into a fresh crisis.
For, just when the BBC needs maximum openness, there are signs that some of the most important evidence heard and seen by Pollard will be held back. Blacked out, censored, redacted – risking the suspicion that the lines of text struck out have been removed to spare senior figures from public embarrassment.
It’s said that the witness whose evidence will be most edited is the Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman. He was particularly scathing in his criticism of senior BBC executives, especially his own editor, who he thought hadn’t grasped the importance of the Savile story.
In the confines of the inquiry, Paxman saw no reason to hold back. This may have been embarrassing for his employers. But reason for us not to read and make our own assessment of his criticisms? I don’t think so. Nevertheless, it now looks likely that all we’ll see is an edited version.
Newsnight’s failure to broadcast its Savile investigation gave rise to speculation that the BBC was more interested in looking after its reputation – and that of one of its own stars, even after his death – than reporting the truth.
But if the Pollard Inquiry evidence – taken from 19 key witnesses and thousands of emails – is released only in a heavily edited form, the public may well think: ‘Here we go again: the BBC is more interested in protecting its own rather than owning up to everything that went wrong.’
The Savile affair has already claimed the career of Director-General George Entwistle. Now it is essential that the public – who pay for the BBC and have a right to know how it is run in their name – learn the whole truth about those management failures before the hapless Entwistle’s successor, Tony Hall, takes over in April.
That is why the BBC must publish all the evidence to Pollard’s inquiry as fully as possible. I don’t say this to damage the BBC or even embarrass it. Quite the opposite. Thirty years in the BBC taught me an important truth: the more open and transparent it is, and the more readily it admits it is not perfect, the more the public trust it.
There is another reason to publish in full. It’s what the BBC chairman, Lord Patten, promised. Pollard produced his interim report before Christmas. But the telling detail in his full report, which is expected to go before the BBC Trust and executive on Thursday, will come in the testimony Pollard heard and the notes and emails he saw.
Those of us who pay for the BBC as well as those who work for it need to see the lessons that have to be learned. And that they have been learned. We need to know, for example, what was in Newsnight editor Peter Rippon’s mind when he shelved his investigative team’s expose of Savile’s paedophilia. Pollard says he made the wrong call.
I’m not so sure. But we can tell only by seeing what his journalists told him about their investigations at the time. We need to know whether something else – say a boss’s nudge or wink – got in the way of sound editorial judgment.
We need to know, too, whether anyone in the BBC’s upper echelons ever thought about keeping the investigation going. More than anything, we need to understand how and why top BBC executives so badly mishandled the crisis once ITV had broadcast its own expose of Savile, containing much of the evidence the BBC had discarded.
What’s been published already reveals the growing panic. But why was no one able to control the chaos? What about the Newsnight editor’s blog designed to clear the air and the interviews by senior BBC bosses designed to calm things down? They were inaccurate. Why? How? The unpublished evidence would tell us.
Inside the DG’s bunker, decision- making seemed based on a game of ‘spin the bottle’. One day, the plan was to back the Newsnight editor against his own journalists and ‘drop poison’ into the media about the Savile investigation team. A few days later, another plan was to dump on the Newsnight editor with a DG’s statement that would force him to resign.
Why? How? We need to know. Was it all about saving the DG? ‘Proving’ he hadn’t pressured News to drop the Newsnight investigation? No one who knew Entwistle or how the BBC works ever thought there was a scrap of truth in the allegation. Yet that, apparently, was all that those in the DG’s bunker could focus on. Meanwhile, on the outside, executives were ringing alarm bells. Were they heard? Were they ignored? Only full publication will tell us.
Of course, that will be painful. But the short-term pain of full disclosure will be nothing compared with the way secrecy will corrode public trust. Now, some of those who gave evidence to Pollard argue they did so without realising it would be made public. If that means their evidence was more honest as a result, it’s an argument for, not against, publication.
I suspect one reason some BBC bosses now want evidence held back is that publishing everything will embarrass them individually and paint an unsavoury picture of senior management. Apparently, some of the language is a tad ‘rich’. Awkward, but far from fatal.
However, I understand the real fear is that the full evidence reveals a poisonous web of mistrust and animosity surrounding journalists, editors and executives. It’s clear the atmosphere inside Newsnight was far from ideal. That bad communication distorted editorial decisions. But was there more to it than that?
I know at first hand, from the Hutton Inquiry, that it’s no joke to see published the emails and notes you thought would remain private. But that’s the price of transparency. And it’s one the BBC and its executives must pay.
I suspect I’m not the only former BBC hand who recognises the long-term value of transparency to the Corporation. The incoming Director-General, Tony Hall, knows that his most important job will be to rebuild the public trust squandered over Savile.
That means taking a firm grip on the Corporation, showing that it’s well-led, well-managed and can deal well with crises. The BBC must show even the most sceptical onlooker that it has learned from the Savile crisis. And that starts with publishing the Pollard evidence in full.
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