Minister fans flames of BBC Savile row

Fallout from inquiry could paralyse the BBC’s management, senior newsmen say
  • @iburrell

The Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, piled pressure on the Director-General of the BBC yesterday by accusing the Corporation of having "inappropriately pulled" a Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile's sexual assaults on children.

Her words in the House of Commons, which appeared to prejudge a series of inquiries into the Savile affair, placed further scrutiny on George Entwistle, who has insisted BBC management did not try to pull the investigation. Mr Entwistle has offered to appear before MPs next week to answer questions.

Aides to Ms Miller, who has been in the post for a month, later said that she had muddled her words.

Senior journalists at the corporation fear the BBC's news coverage could suffer for months as the fallout from the scandal paralyses the corporation's management.

The BBC's director of news, Helen Boaden, urged her staff to continue covering the story, while acknowledging it was the source of "a lot of soul searching" at the organisation. The Director-General, George Entwistle, will answer questions from the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee next week.

John Whittingdale, Conservative chairman of the committee, said MPs wanted to know more about why Mr Entwistle said he did not know Newsnight was investigating claims of sexual abuse against Savile. Mr Whittingdale said he thought MPs would want to know why the BBC ran tributes to the presenter last year but dropped the Newsnight investigation and why editorial bosses sat on the allegations until after they had been revealed by ITV.

Other BBC exectutives, including Ms Boaden, might be summoned before the committee, Mr Whittingdale told The Times.

The Labour leader Ed Miliband last night called for a separate, independent inquiry. He told ITV: "I think we need a broader look at these public institutions – the BBC, some parts of the NHS, potentially, Broadmoor... It's got to be independent. I'm a great supporter of the BBC but I don't think you can have the BBC board sort of leading its own inquiry." His call came hours after Ms Miller, in the House of Commons, ruled out an independent inquiry.

Ms Boaden, her deputy, Stephen Mitchell, and the editor of Newsnight, Peter Rippon, will be among those questioned in a review which Ms Miller said would be headed by a "completely independent figure with editorial expertise". The names of the people leading the BBC inquiries will be announced today or tomorrow.

One BBC journalist told The Independent there were fears that if senior executives felt themselves "under investigation" over the affair, the BBC's coverage of stories such as the war in Syria and the crisis in the eurozone could be undermined.

Jeremy Vine, the BBC Radio 2 presenter, further increased pressure on the corporation's management by warning it would be an "absolute scandal" if the BBC had shelved the Newsnight report so as not to taint planned tribute shows to the DJ. "It now looks unfortunately as if they didn't run the exposé because they were running the tributes and that is why it is such a toxic thing," he said..

In Parliament yesterday, Ms Miller warned the BBC that its international reputation was at risk. "The BBC is a globally admired British institution and has a unique place in our cultural life. As such it is imperative that it behaves in a manner that makes it worthy of the public's ongoing trust."

New in post, she appeared to take a tough stance on her first BBC controversy, stating that Newsnight had "inappropriately pulled" its Savile investigation. Officials from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport later insisted that she did not intend to prejudge the reviews, which were a matter for the BBC and not for ministers.

The scope of allegations against Savile grew yesterday when Manchester solicitors Pannone said it had been contacted by at least a dozen victims. Solicitor Alan Collins said: "We were already dealing with one case of alleged abuse by Savile in Jersey and, as a result of media attention, we have now had at least a dozen calls from individuals who claim to have suffered abuse at the hands of the former celebrity."