The BBC's Director-General, George Entwistle, was facing questions about his judgement last night after it emerged that he chose to broadcast a tribute to Jimmy Savile despite being warned by senior executives that it was compromised by a Newsnight investigation into the DJ's sex abuse.
The extent of Mr Entwistle's knowledge of the shelved investigation is revealed in an explosive BBC Panorama documentary to be aired tonight.
John Simpson, the BBC foreign editor, described the scandal engulfing the Corporation as "the worst crisis that I can remember in my nearly 50 years at the BBC".
The Panorama programme also reveals that reporters working on the Savile story believed that Newsnight's editor Peter Rippon was under pressure from the highest echelons of the Corporation to abandon their probe. Mr Entwistle is also accused of misleading the public by subsequently claiming that the ditched investigation had focused on Surrey Police's inquiry into Savile, rather than the sex abuse allegations themselves.
The Panorama special, which screens tonight at 10.35pm, claims Helen Boaden, the BBC director of news, warned Mr Entwistle about the investigation and its possible impact on planned tributes to Savile.
During the conversation in December 2011, when Mr Entwistle was director of vision, Ms Boaden said that if the Newsnight investigation went ahead he might have to change the Christmas schedules.
But despite the conversation, which lasted "less than 10 seconds", the tribute programmes were still aired, without mention of the child abuse claims.
The BBC rushed tonight's Panorama special into the schedules, dropping the planned edition that was to focus on gambling.
It exposes the anger of those working on the Newsnight investigation at Mr Entwistle's public statement that it had focused on Surrey Police's inquiry. He made the claim on 5 October, while explaining why the BBC had not published the sex abuse allegations later exposed by ITV. Meirion Jones, the Newsnight producer, immediately emailed Mr Entwistle to say: "George – one note – the investigation was into whether Jimmy Savile was a paedophile – I know because it was my investigation. We didn't know that Surrey Police had investigated Jimmy Savile – no one did – that was what we found when we investigated and interviewed his victims."
Mr Entwistle is to face MPs tomorrow at a Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Neither he nor Ms Boaden, along with a series of senior members of the team, responded to questions from Panorama.
Liz MacKean, a reporter who worked on the Newsnight story, said: "Ever since the decision was taken to shelve our story I've not been happy with public statements made by the BBC. I think they're very misleading about the nature of the investigation we were doing."
The Newsnight journalists claim they were close to a transmission date when they were halted by editor Peter Rippon. They claim that after a positive response from Mr Rippon he went cold overnight.
Ms MacKean said she believed he was being pressured from above, and emailed a friend saying: "PR [Peter Rippon] says if the bosses aren't happy... [he] can't go to the wall on this one."
Mr Rippon has maintained the programme was pulled for "editorial reasons" and not an embarrassing clash with planned tributes. Confusion surrounded his position last night when the Daily Mail reported that he had resigned – only for a startled BBC press office to flatly deny this.
Veteran foreign affairs journalist John Simpson told Panorama: "This is the worst crisis that I can remember in my nearly 50 years at the BBC." A BBC spokesman said: "The BBC has confirmed it has launched an independent review led by former head of Sky News, Nick Pollard, which will cover these questions."
Crisis unfolds: Savile affair
28 September Allegations made by 10 women accusing Jimmy Savile of sexual abuse and paedophilia during his BBC career come to light as ITV announces it will air a documentary into his behaviour
2 October Peter Rippon, the editor of Newsnight who dropped an investigation into Savile months earlier, denies a BBC cover-up or withholding facts from the police, saying the report was pulled due to a lack of evidence
3 October ITV airs its documentary, Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile
8 October The BBC Director-General, George Entwistle, says the BBC will not hold an inquiry into Savile's behaviour while working for the Corporation as it would interfere with police investigations
12 October Mr Entwistle makes a U-turn by announcing two separate BBC inquiries, one into Savile's behaviour and one into Newsnight
21 October Newsnight is alleged to have come under pressure from senior management to drop its earlier Savile investigation, as Panorama prepares to air its own report tonight
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