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Bullets over the Beeb

Expect more infighting and buck-passing from the corporation

27 October 2012

9:00 AM

27 October 2012

9:00 AM

Ring, ring, goes the telephone, every hour that God sends. And it’s always some producer from the BBC, ringing me up to ask me on to some programme to stick the boot in to the BBC. Newsnight, The World at One, This Week, BBC Good Morning Biddulph, BBC Top o’The Mornin’ Paddy. It is not enough that they should, like nematode worms which stab themselves to death with their own penises, -simply attack the BBC themselves; they want multitudes of other people to do it, too. ‘Tell me, just how useless is the BBC, and in particular its senior executives? Could they be more useless if they tried?’ This is evidence, if the BBC’s senior managers are to be believed, of the corporation’s honest and open approach to its own affairs.

Yes, up to a point, so it is. That’s in there somewhere, along with schadenfreude at the plight of other bits of the BBC and internecine rivalry, and perhaps also a weird self-flagellating tendency that often grips the corporation, unsure as it is of why it still exists. But also, this openness, this candour, is a measure of the contempt in which the boss class of the BBC are held by the thousands of minions below. Rightly, in many cases, I should add. And so, as this ghastly Savile business unfolds, the little BBC programmes — the fiefdoms, the satrapies of the corporation — have gone for it with an excitation, hyperbole and overkill which almost matches the excitation, hyperbole and overkill of their phone-hacking coverage. Meanwhile, the director-general (at time of writing, check your local bookmaker for odds), George Entwistle, squirms before a House of Commons select committee — appearing not to have been briefed on anything except for maybe his own name — and clings to his decision to allow Panorama to stick the boot into Newsnight (they need little encouragement, by the way) as evidence that the BBC is honest, and its journalism impartial and to be trusted. Clings like a spider clings to the side of a bath as the water rises beneath it.

The Panorama programme in question examined the reasons why Newsnight did not run an investigation into Jimmy Savile’s paedophilic tendencies, and did so with a certain glee and chutzpah. It was, as Entwistle proudly maintained, a good programme — but something was missing from it. -Entwistle. He refused to be interviewed — and so did all the other very highly paid bureaucrats who are one way or another involved in this story. Call me a cynic, but I think they have something to hide. I did not think so when this story first broke, but with every subsequent twist and turn it becomes more probable that, towards the end of last year, they got themselves involved in the issue. It seems to me, on balance of probability, highly likely that something was brought to bear on the Newsnight editor, Peter Rippon — if not pressure, then a certain pressing concern.

Let’s examine the facts. The Newsnight team of Meirion Jones and Liz MacKean set to work on a story exposing Jimmy Savile’s paedophilia — of this there is not much doubt. Initially, Rippon implied that the original brief for the story had been about the Crown Prosecution Service’s own investigation into Savile and its eventual failure. But this was never the case, as agreed now by pretty much everyone, including Rippon. When he was first presented with the film, Rippon reportedly told the team: ‘Excellent. We can then pull together the TX’ (i.e., get it ready to be broadcast). At the same time he told the publicity office that there would be a ‘huge amount of interest’ in the film.

That was on 25 November; by 30 November, though, he was having grave doubts. Now he wanted the film to pursue the suggestion that the CPS and Surrey Police had somehow let Savile’s victims down by not prosecuting the albino pervert. By 1 December, he had told the team to stop working on the project, much to their chagrin. By 9 December, it was officially axed.

Now, this could be all well and good. Editors often pull stories because they have perfectly reasonable worries about the strength of the material, and we should take with a pinch of salt the complaints of Jones and MacKean that their story was an absolute stonker etc; this is what investigative journalists always say. It might be that, having first heard the outline of the piece, -Rippon was very interested (‘terrific’) but, after he had looked at it in more depth, he felt worried about the allegations being made, and tried the softer option of getting his team to kick the police instead. That would be plausible. Newsnight — and the BBC in general — is not terribly good at investigative journalism because its public service remit forces it to be far more circumspect than, for example, the newspapers. So it is possible that Rippon simply thought better of it, that it was too big a risk to take — that the police had failed in their investigations to nail Savile, and no newspapers had ever published allegations, so best leave well alone. That might have been the wrong decision — and indeed Entwistle has since said that it was. (Useful thing, hindsight, huh, George?) But hardly a catastrophe for the BBC, merely another example of its habitual journalistic caution. No question of conflicting interests, no pressure brought to bear, just one editor making a considered decision by himself. No crisis.

So that’s a possibility. But it seems to me, after all that has come out in the past few days, a vanishingly small possibility. Because both Jones and MacKean are adamant — now, as then — that their editor confessed to the fact that managers above him in the long and lucrative BBC food chain were involved and were concerned. For example, Jones remembers Rippon telling him, during an argument over the fate of the film, that ‘the bosses aren’t happy’. Now, maybe Jones has misremembered. But in that case, there is the email that was sent from MacKean to a friend on or about 30 November — just as Rippon was completing his inelegant volte face — where she says Rippon had told her: ‘Internally, Liz, this is a very long political chain.’ That seems to me a bit of a clincher, frankly — and all the more so because Panorama had access to that email but were prohibited from using it by the BBC, reportedly: it has only emerged since.

Rippon has been hung out to dry, poor bloke — by both the top brass at the BBC, including the director-general, and indeed by members of his own team. It was not pleasant watching him being stitched up by Jones on Panorama — no matter how miffed Jones was that his film didn’t go out, or how wedded to the unvarnished truth and so on, his readiness to knife his boss suggested to me a longer-held animus (which I have since had corroborated from within the show). If Rippon had made the decision entirely by himself, then to a certain extent he deserves a degree of censure for not having run the piece, although not on the scale of losing his job. But, as I say, that possibility seems to me so small as to scarcely exist. How do we explain away the MacKean email? Someone, I would suggest, had expressed their concern and had pointed out to Rippon that the BBC was scheduling a bunch of tributes to Savile over Christmas. And that, I reckon, was that.

In which case, Rippon’s primary mistake was telling any of the top brass what his programme was up to in the first place. Never, ever refer stuff up in the BBC — someone, somewhere, will find a reason to stop you doing whatever you’re doing, because at executive level the main concern is not to frighten the horses. Even if they are really horrible horses. What you do is this: you leave the horses well alone. Let the press frighten the horses, and then do a follow-up on how frightened the horses have become as a consequence of the press.

And yet I will bet that the upshot of all this will be the imposition of structures to make the mediocre BBC top brass more involved with controversial stories, rather than less. And that will mean that in future, stories such as the Jimmy Savile exposé will stand even less chance of being seen.

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