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Five key points from the Pollard Review evidence on Newsnight and Jimmy Savile

22 February 2013

10:07 PM

22 February 2013

10:07 PM

There are over 3,000 pages of evidence in the cache of transcripts, emails, statements and texts for the Pollard Review released by the BBC today. Some of the interviews covered familiar old ground, such as Jeremy Paxman telling the inquiry that it was ‘common gossip that Jimmy Savile liked, you know, young – it was always assumed to be girls’. But there are other points which are worth noting from today’s release. There may well be others: some of the evidence, as the pictures below show, was heavily redacted.

1. Newsnight was poorly resourced

This was a problem referred to by many of those who gave evidence to the inquiry. Jeremy Paxman told Pollard that ‘frequently things are now so stretched that they can’t be viewed by editors before transmission because there are simply – there is simply nobody there. No-one has the time to do it’, although he added that this would not have been the case with this particular story. Peter Rippon himself said that though investigations were ‘part of the kind of moral contract that the BBC has with its audiences’, ‘it needs to think about how credibly we can resource [investigative journalism on a daily programme] to deliver the – to deliver it’. Helen Boaden also said:

‘You know, maybe we didn’t catch up fast enough with the idea that as Newsnight’s job and purpose slightly changes, actually some of the things that it has done well and proudly no longer quite work. It is not necessarily as fit for purpose as it should be.’

But because the different parts of the BBC continued to work in silos, the obvious solution of a big investigation which needed time to shore up to make it safe for broadcast being passed to Panorama was not investigated. Lord Patten told the inquiry:

‘You have a programme – a piece of investigative journalism which is dropped by Newsnight in – I mean, with the benefit of hindsight, I don’t understand why somebody didn’t say, ‘well, Panorama can take more – take its time and spend a bit more time and see if they can get this story to stand up more effectively.’

2. There was a discussion about using Peter Rippon as a ‘fall guy’ in this scandal.

Paxman’s emails to the Newsnight editor outlined a suspicion that he was being used as a scapegoat. He wrote that ‘it is corrosive, it is disgusting the way the BBC is hanging you out since it must have been a corporate decision, whatever your blog says’. His suspicions were not entirely misplaced: Patten said some people in the corporation had wondered whether Rippon ‘would make a convenient fall guy’:

‘The question of whether he was – some people thought he was a suitable – or would make a convenient fall guy – I think the expression is ‘could be hung out to dry’ – may have occurred to some people but I think we, um – I don’t think we ever got into that position.’

3. The Newsnight team suffered from serious tensions, while witnesses described a ‘culture’ of leaks at the BBC.

One individual is noted as having repeatedly raised concerns with BBC management about Peter Rippon’s abilities. Whenever this is discussed, the transcript is heavily redacted, save for a discussion in Helen Boaden’s interview where she describes the views of the individual concerned (and it is not clear whether he worked for the programme or elsewhere in the BBC) as being this:

‘His view was that Peter was a very decent man who did news analysis very well, but he, in his view, lacked the leadership qualities that [REDACTED] thought were necessary in an editor of Newsnight.’

Below are copies of that redacted section of Boaden’s evidence (you can click on each one to view a larger version of the image):

But aside from that, frequent references were made to leaks coming from the programme team and the wider BBC community. Rippon and Paxman discussed this in an email exchange where ‘old lags’ on the programme were accused of being behind those leaks to the newspapers. At one point in his interview, Rippon describes one leak as ‘appalling’ and ‘shocking’, while Boaden said there was a culture of leaking at the BBC.

Rippon was also surprised by how angry Liz MacKean and Meirion Jones were about the decision not to broadcast the film. He said:

‘I’m quite shocked by a lot of particularly what Liz is saying to her friends who work for rival news programmes about stories that they are doing. I was not aware – that was not the impression I got from memory that I took away from those conversations. I knew they disagreed with me, but I didn’t – I wasn’t aware of the extent of it.’

Meanwhile Patten described a ‘dysfunctional’ team:

‘You have plainly, with Newsnight, a dysfunctional team: argumentative, leaking, not accepting an editorial decision, coming back to it over and over again. ‘

4. There were concerns about the quality of the investigation itself.

Rippon said he was concerned that one of the journalists working with MacKean and Jones wasn’t sufficiently experienced to be interviewing victims of abuse. Boaden also said she was worried about the way that some of the questions might have been framed. But there were also repeated concerns about broadcasting something when Savile had only recently died. Meirion Jones speculated that Liz Gibbons was uneasy about exposing ‘a paedophile, you know, just after he died’, saying ‘I have a sort of vague feeling of Liz really not wanting to have anything to do with the story’, though Boaden, when she first heard of the investigation, said she thought it ‘was one of those slightly tabloid-esque stories involving groupies’.

Rippon’s evidence was that he took the decision not to broadcast the film ‘when we got the final CPS confirmation emphatically denying some of the things the women had been telling us, that was – that was – that was the point at which I made a final judgment and assessment about what I felt about the strength of the testimony we gathered’. He compared his fears that the story would not stand up to examination with what happened with the subsequent Newsnight broadcast which led to the incorrect identification of Lord McAlpine as a paedophile. But he repeatedly denied that he had been leant on, saying ‘I cannot recall feeling that there was any significant disagreement or pressure from my bosses to feel significantly differently about the story than I had’.

Entwistle said his brief conversation with Helen Boaden at an awards ceremony about a possible Newsnight investigation into Savile contained a brief joke about the trouble that News programmes could make for scheduling, but that he believed that this sort of disruption was a good thing from a journalistic point of view.

But others were not so sure. Paxman told Rippon in his emails that ‘it must have been a corporate decision’, which the editor denied, saying ‘I guess I may have been guilty of self-censorship’. In his evidence, the presenter said he thought Rippon was probably both being leant on and personally worried about the broadcast. He said:

‘But what struck me about it was his reply when I mentioned the reasons. He said: ‘I am sorry, I just can’t do this.’ And I thought that was a very, very unusual word to use, ‘can’t’, because the normal judgment – I mean: no, we are not going to do it, because we have got – we haven’t got time or we are doing politics or we are doing too many social stories tonight anyway. ‘Can’t was a very, very unusual word to use, and I didn’t say, ‘what do you mean ‘can’t’? Someone has told you that you can’t, or you physically can’t face it?

‘Now, I think – my suspicion is that there may well have been an element of both. There certainly was an element of the second, as you will see in one of these emails somewhere in here. He says – he is suggesting that I do – I can’t remember.’

Jones continued to express his suspicion that there was a chain of command that wasn’t happy with the story, saying ‘I had an impression of plural and they [Boaden and Stephen Mitchell] would be the next two up the chain’, adding that Rippon ‘gave that impression that it was a decision out of his hands and above him’. Boaden suggested this was not an unusual excuse used by editors when pulling stories.

Rippon’s blog was discussed at great length and there are chains of emails from Paxman, MacKean and Jones in this section. It was interesting that Boaden accepted the BBC hadn’t been quite sure about how to approach blogging by programme editors, and witnesses described a lengthy sign-off process. Rippon himself accepted that with hindsight he ‘should have corrected it’ when it became clear certain details were incorrect, while Entwistle said ‘there is a timetable on which I start to develop a real anxiety about whether the blog is accurate’.

5. The BBC’s structure made it difficult to deal with the investigation or the fallout.

Paxman said the way the BBC handled the scandal was ‘contemptible’, while Patten said the senior leader’s group in the BBC had ‘more senior leaders than China’, as well as referring to the way programmes didn’t communicate with one another.

Paxman also said some of the changes post-Hutton may have damaged editorial independence:

‘I think it is almost certainly the case – and I am speculating here, but I think it is the case, probably, that post-Hutton, there has been a greater centralisation – or a desire for greater centralisation of editorial decision-making, that – and that that has been at the expense of the sort of independence that editors previously exercised.’

But has the BBC learned from the mistakes? Well, Patten told Pollard that ‘I will want to be more convinced that there is a structure in place which ensures that the truth is being told’. There might also be a structure in which the BBC isn’t trying to report its own story as an exclusive: acting director general Tim Davie gave an interview to the Beeb only, and it was then pooled to other broadcasters. It’s worth reading Channel 4 news editor Ben De Pear’s tweets for some context on who else has offered this sort of interview set up where a broadcaster cannot ask their own questions.

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