Chaos and cannibalism – First Wednesday exposes disconnection at the BBC

The panel of media heavyweights chaired by broadcaster Steve Hewlett was joined by numerous journalists past and present in the audience. A remarkable moment came as veteran BBC journalist Max Easterman described his experience making programmes on child sex abuse for Radio 4.

“I was knocked sideways at the apparent hands off approach of the editor of Newsnight… Not only was my editor anxious to know on a daily basis what we were getting… he was anxious to know that we weren’t in any way transgressing against the victims and not making their trauma any worse.”

In response, Meirion Jones who was the producer working on the now infamous Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile, revealed the total disengagement of the programme’s editor Peter Rippon.

“More importantly the question is, if this was rejected on journalistic grounds the journalism had to be examined. At the very least it was necessary to watch all the interviews with the victim, watch the interview with the supporting witness, read all the transcripts of the conversations that Liz and our researcher Hannah had had with the victims and then to put it to Mark Williams Thomas who had been hired as a consultant because of his experience… He didn’t engage with the evidence.”

Jones, who appeared on the Panorama investigation into the BBC’s dropping of the initial Newsnight report, went on to explain why he felt the investigation was never revisited after Savile’s death.

“I don’t think the BBC could broadcast it after Christmas, quite simply the BBC knew that Jimmy Savile was a paedophile. They pulled that film and they put out instead glowing tributes on Radio 2, BBC One and BBC Two, once those had gone out any attempt to run it afterwards would immediately arise questions saying; you had all that information, you knew he was a paedophile, why did you put out the tributes?”

Former Newsnight editor Sian Kevill suggested that Rippon lacked the confidence that he was respected by his staff and that he made a series of decisions by himself, leaving himself open as the single point of failure.

“The press is looking for a smoking gun – did anybody put pressure on Peter – but no one’s taken a step back and said this was such a bad editorial decision and the consequence of this editorial decision is worse than a smoking gun. It is extraordinary senior news management did not see that the decision to abandon it should never have been made.”

Turning to broader questions of crisis management at the BBC, former Channel 5 and BSkyB executive David Elstein claimed that the BBC was in a state of management and governance chaos.

“Two of the people who would have got the daily press cuttings when seven national newspapers ran stories on Newsnight dropping the programme mentioning that Savile was a paedophile. They just ignored these and were actually on the list for the top job and one of them got the job!”

In an attempt to contextualise the current crisis, Professor Jean Seaton from the University of Westminster argued that it would be worse for the BBC than the Hutton affair.

“It’s very serious… This crisis is about a long term betrayal of the mass working classes… An awful lot of people enjoyed Savile and that enjoyment came because he was endorsed by a set of institutions including the BBC.”

Turning to the corporation’s future, the panel were unanimous that there would be resignations at the BBC although they weren’t saying who was most likely for the chop. Speaking about the Nick Pollard review which will be the first inquiry to report on the Savile affair, former Editor-in-Chief and CEO of ITN Stewart Purvis said

“This has to be done in a comprehensive way and the email trails will take Nick where he has to go… If the BBC has knowingly misled the public… then I’m sure somebody has to go.”

For a timeline of the BBC’s handling of the crisis by Stewart Purvis, see here and watch the event back in full below: