Report blames chaos, not cover-up, for BBC scandal

Review absolved executives of trying to bury a potentially embarrassing scandal story

By Raphael Satter
Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — Institutional chaos and confusion — but not a cover-up — were to blame for the BBC’s disastrous handling of pedophilia allegations involving one of its best-known children’s television personalities, an internal review found Wednesday.

The review carried out by former Sky News boss Nick Pollard absolved BBC executives of trying to bury a potentially embarrassing story, saying that weak management and poor leadership were to blame for the fact that a planned expose about the late TV star, Jimmy Savile, never aired on the flagship “Newsnight” program.

When the rival ITV network broadcast a similar expose in October about Savile, who died in 2011 at age 84, the BBC came under fire for both harboring an alleged serial sex abuser for decades and for killing its own story about him.

“The ‘Newsnight’ investigators got the story right,” Pollard said. “They had found clear and compelling evidence that Jimmy Savile was a pedophile.”

He said the decision by news executives to scrap the item “was clearly flawed, and the way it was taken was wrong, though I believe it was taken in good faith.”

The review said the BBC was thrown into disarray when allegations that Savile was a serial sex predator were made public, taking more than a month to get a handle on the situation.

The scandal has since metastasized, tainting the reputation of the BBC — the British broadcaster known worldwide for its news and entertainment divisions. It also forced the resignation of the BBC’s brand new director-general, George Entwistle, and raised questions about its former leader, Mark Thompson, who has since become chief executive at The New York Times.

The scandal took on greater dimensions when it emerged that the BBC had cancelled an initial investigation in December 2011 into Savile over the objections of its reporters, raising questions about whether senior executives tried to bury the story to protect the corporation’s reputation.

The report published Wednesday absolves the executives of that — the most serious — charge.

In the review, which executives said cost the BBC 2 million pounds ($3.3 million), Pollard asked: “Did any inappropriate managerial pressure or consideration influence the decision ... not to run the Savile story?”
“The answer is no,” he wrote, noting that while there had been conversations between Mark Rippon, who led the BBC’s initial investigation into Savile, and two senior executives, “I do not believe either of them
exerted undue pressure on him.”

The BBC announced that its deputy director of news, Steve Mitchell — who was among those criticized — had resigned in the wake of the report. Other members of staff still faced a variety of disciplinary actions or were moving to new jobs, the corporation said.

The report does not appear to challenge Thompson’s account of his role in the scandal — and Chris Patten, head of the BBC Trust, said after the review was published that he has “no reason at all for disbelieving” the former director general.

Since the ITV documentary, scores of women have come forward, alleging that they were abused by Savile when they were underage, sometimes in BBC dressing rooms. Police say Savile is a suspect in 199 crimes recorded so far, including dozens of cases of rape.

A broader police investigation into sex abuse spurred by the claims against Savile has so far led to the detention of eight suspects for questioning. The latest arrest was announced Wednesday, with police saying a man in his 70s had been detained in connection with the investigation.

Other suspects arrested include former pop star Gary Glitter, whose real name is Paul Gadd, and well-known publicist Max Clifford.

A separate report found the BBC had committed a “grave breach” of its editorial guidelines when it aired a “Newsnight” broadcast last month wrongly linking a politician to child sex abuse allegations.

The BBC has already apologized for linking Alistair McAlpine, a member of the House of Lords, to child sex abuse that happened decades ago in Wales. It has also paid damages to McAlpine over the report, which did not directly name him but led to Internet chatter about his purported role.

A report by the BBC’s governing trust found those who produced the program had failed to make “basic journalistic checks.”

“This was a high-risk report which required rigorous supervision and did not receive it,” the report said.

The mistaken report caused turmoil within BBC management and helped lead to Entwistle’s resignation after just 54 days in the job.