Tonight at 10.35 something extraordinary will happen: a TV programme will call into question the competence and integrity of its own Chief Editor.
BBC Panorama will air the fact that BBC Newsnight journalists (notably reporter Liz MacKean and producer Meirion Jones) do not accept the explanation given by the Corporation’s top brass for having pulled Newsnight‘s Savile exposé in December of last year. The clear implication will be that pressure was brought to bear from the very top of the Corporation to pull the film.
Those who heard Newsnight editor Peter Rippon trying to explain away the decision, or who read his original blog account (now amended) of the reasoning behind the decision, already know that his ‘explanation’ stinks. But for nearly three weeks the Beeb’s official line on the matter held firm in its denial and compacency – which makes Rippon’s “decision” (allegedly forced on him by the new director general George Entwistle) to “stand aside” today and the admission that his account was “inaccurate or incomplete” all the more remarkable.
In tonight’s Panorama, Liz MacKean will state that she knew at the time the Newsnight report was nearing completion on 30th November of last year, that the previously supportive Rippon had changed his mind and would not be prepared to see the film aired. She does not, it seems, offer any explanation as to why Rippon backed down, and Panorama has no proof that any pressure was brought to bear on Rippon.
It’s hard to escape the obvious explanation: the BBC had a number of grovelling “tribute” shows scheduled to celebrate the national treasure, tireless charity worker and serial paedophile Savile over the Christmas period. The Newsnight exposé would have been, to say the least, a bit embarrassing.
But now comes the most interesting bit: what did the new BBC director general (at the time head of BBC TV) George Entwistle, know about the allegations against Savile and the Newsnight report in the period immediately before the film was pulled?
According to Panorama, Helen Boaden (head of BBC news), warned Entwistle in December that something was about to be broadcast on Newsnight, that might cause him to have to re-think his planned Savile tributes over Christmas. Entwistle acknowledges that this conversation happened, but insists that he didn’t ask Boaden for further details – something that I am not alone in finding difficult to believe.
What we know for sure is that shortly after that convesation, Rippon pulled the programme and later gave reasons for doing so that have now been withdrawn as untrue (sorry: “inaccurate or incomplete”).
Naturally, the Murdoch press, the Mail and the Tories are having a field-day at the Beeb’s expense over the Savile affair as a whole, the Newsnight business in particular, and the BBC’s monumental mishandling of the whole fiasco. And it has to be admitted that the Corporation’s compacency, dishonesty and ineptitude has played into the hands of its enemies. If today’s reports that BBC has been briefing against its own Newsnight journalists are true, then heads will have to roll, starting with Enwistle’s.
But it must be borne in mind that tonights’s Panorama will be something that no commercial broadcaster would ever allow: a devastating and potentially career-threatening attack upon its own senior management. It was encroaching commercialism (ie: the imperative to protect Savile’s reputation during and after his life) within the BBC that got it into this mess in the first place. It’s the public service ethos (to be demonstrated by Panorama tonight) that may yet save it.