With the BBC on the run, ITV's investigative unit gains new ground

 

Almost every day new victims emerge with claims of sexual abuse by the late Jimmy Savile but the casualty list from the Jim'll Fix It presenter's toxic legacy will not be confined to those he targeted in their childhoods. Careers are also being damaged.

Savile has dominated the front pages for most of this month but the media story – the biggest since phone hacking – is essentially a tale of two broadcasters.

It was summed up in a scene on ITV News, when its reporter Lucy Manning chased BBC Director General George Entwistle up his own London street asking him "Do you think it was right to run the Jimmy Savile [tribute] programmes when you knew about the Newsnight investigation?" The DG pleaded: "I had no idea what the nature of the investigation was."

Manning requested a more conventional interview, just as she did with Lord Patten, who she was also obliged to collar outside Broadcasting House in London – after learning that the BBC Trust chairman was planning to prioritise BBC news outlets for interviews. "If we hadn't turned up on the off chance we were going to doorstep him we wouldn't have got that," Manning tells me.

The BBC on the run, ITV with a strange new confidence. This has been the pattern for three weeks, since ITV's Exposure documentary broke the Savile story almost a year after the BBC's Newsnight quashed its own exposé on the corporation's former star.

It's a long time since ITV had a strong reputation in investigative journalism. World In Action, This Week, First Tuesday and The Cook Report are just some of the strands that were instantly recognisable to viewers as sources of hard-hitting ITV documenatry. But in recent times the narrative of this sector has been of a two horse contest between the BBC's Panorama and Channel 4's Dispatches.

For all ITV's claims about its sizeable audience for Tonight, that programme – 13 years after it was launched – has never been convincing in carrying forward the ITV reputation established by the likes of World in Action producers Ray Fitzwalter and Paul Greengrass at Granada.

ITV has a difficult task in establishing two new current affairs brands; Exposure and The Agenda, Tom Bradby's studio-based discussion show which has had early successes in landing high-profile political guests such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg.

For the past 18 months, Michael Jermey, ITV's Director of News and Current Affairs, has been trying to unite the strengths of the organisation's disparate pool of around 900 journalists (the biggest team in commercial media) under a strategy called "One ITV News".

The Exposure documentary, and the way it was followed up by the ITV News teams, suggests the approach may be starting to work.

Jermey makes the point that World in Action was not always serious – it would tackle populist subjects such as Radio Caroline or an interview with Mick Jagger on youth culture. But he promises Exposure will tackle stories that don't obviously appeal to the tabloids.

The Savile piece was not an easy shot at someone who had died. "I suspect the police would have done a great deal with our evidence quite quickly had he been alive," he says.

But just as the Savile story has been a big win for ITV it has been a personal tragedy for two of the BBC's best investigative reporters, Liz MacKean and Meirion Jones, whose decision to invest great effort in investigating the issue has been justified by the avalanche of alleged victims who have latterly come forward.

MacKean's situation has also shone a light on another difficult situation within the BBC, beyond the corporation's decision not to broadcast the evidence that she and Jones had uncovered. A Newsnight veteran of 12 years with an outstanding track record of reporting difficult stories from Ireland and investigations such as the Trafigura toxic waste scandal, she is taking redundancy – apparently with a heavy heart – as the BBC downsizes following changes to the licence fee.

There is becoming a serious shortage of experienced female reporters in Britain's biggest news provider and there is disquiet about the number who are leaving, particularly in the wake of presenter Miriam O'Reilly successfully suing the BBC for age discrimination.

Shelley Jofre, who is said to be fronting a Panorama on Savile and the BBC to be shown tonight, is one of the flagship show's few remaining female faces, along with Hilary Andersson and Jane Corbin, a freelance. Newsnight, despite the presence of Kirsty Wark and Emily Maitlis in the presenting line-up, also has a very masculine feel under editor Peter Rippon.

His position must be in doubt as the growing number of alleged Savile victims raises further questions on why he called off Newsnight's reporters. The circumstances surrounding that decision will form part of two internal inquiries, which will hopefully give an indication of how much BBC journalists are inhibited by the compliance culture introduced in the wake of the Hutton inquiry and whether it means editors are less inclined to fight for difficult stories.

If such a culture really did lead to an editorial misjudgement that caused the BBC to miss out on a mighty scandal on its own doorstep – and one that had been identified by its own journalists – then we as licence fee payers are not getting value for money. The only winner would be the resurgent ITV news teams.

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