The new Director-General of the BBC, George Entwistle, failed to adequately respond to an impassioned warning from a senior Newsnight journalist that the Corporation has been involved in a “concerted effort” to cover up the circumstances surrounding its decision not to screen an investigation into sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile.
A leading journalist on the original Savile exposé, Liz MacKean, has told Mr Entwistle he is mistaken in the account he has given to the BBC's staff and that the Corporation has issued "repeated misleading statements", The Independent has learnt.
Mr Entwistle declined the opportunity to speak to Ms MacKean even though he knew her, and replied with a two-line note, passing the matter to a colleague. The Director-General's handling of the matter is likely to weaken his position ahead of his appearance before Parliament on Tuesday, when he is expected to face difficult questions on his handling of the scandal that emerged during his first month in his post.
Ms MacKean and her colleague Meirion Jones, both experienced investigative journalists working on the original Savile story for the BBC, were yesterday summoned to a meeting by Peter Horrocks, the BBC's Director of Global News, who has stepped in to oversee the Corporation's ongoing coverage. It is believed to be the first time the two journalists who worked on the investigation have been given the chance to put their version of events to senior BBC management. In her email to Mr Entwistle 12 days ago, Ms MacKean said she wanted to "share with you my disquiet about the handling of the Newsnight Savile story". She denied Mr Entwistle's previous assertion that the story was "about the Surrey police investigation" and rejected an account by the Newsnight editor Peter Rippon, who posted a blog on the BBC website on 2 October, the day before ITV's Savile documentary, explaining his decision to drop the BBC's story.
"Ever since the report was dropped [by the BBC], just ahead of it being edited, there have been repeated misleading statements from the press office about the nature of our investigation," wrote Ms MacKean, who also complained about Newsnight's coverage of the scandal, once it had broken.
"To see what began as a BBC story running large on ITV is a hard thing. For it not to be mentioned in any way on Newsnight is another, quite absurd, thing. But worst of all has been what seems like a concerted effort to make it appear that our story was about something else, something that could be dropped and forgotten ahead of fulsome tribute programmes. It is this which seems to be fuelling the damaging claims of a cover-up."
The journalist's suggestion that the investigation was close to the edit stage and was sacrificed in December 2011 for How's About That Then?, a positive programme about Savile's life – which fell under Mr Entwistle's responsibility as BBC Director of Vision – raises questions about whether he did enough to satisfy himself that the former Jim'll Fix It presenter was worthy of such a tribute – and whether Mr Rippon should have warned BBC senior management about the evidence his team had gathered.
Mr Entwistle has publicly said he was determined not to interfere in an independent editorial process and, although he was aware of a Newsnight investigation into Savile, "had no idea what the nature of the investigation was".
He replied to Ms MacKean – who he knew from his time as editor of Newsnight – with a two-line note: "Thank you for this. I have asked Ken MacQuarrie from BBC Scotland to get in touch with you to discuss this." But Mr MacQuarrie's role was quickly superseded by other official BBC inquiries announced this month. It is understood Mr Entwistle thought it inappropriate to speak directly to the journalists, who were asked to clarify their complaints.
Rob Wilson, the Conservative MP for Reading East, said: "George Entwistle's biggest weakness is that he failed in his duty on behalf of the licence fee payers – he should have been in a position to stop the tribute programmes because he was asking the right questions internally about Jimmy Savile."
The Independent understands that a documentary by the BBC's own Panorama programme into the Savile scandal has obtained a series of internal BBC emails which throw new light on the background to the decision not to broadcast the Newsnight exposé.
Panorama interviewed both Ms MacKean and Mr Jones on Thursday and is understood to be in possession of an email from Mr Jones, in which the investigative reporter warned Mr Rippon in December 2011 of the likely consequences of his decision to abandon the story, accurately predicting the furore that has engulfed the BBC 10 months later. Another contemporaneous email from Ms MacKean, written to a friend, is said to express her frustration that Mr Rippon had pulled the programme after expressing a reluctance to fight the BBC's internal compliance culture. A further email contains Mr Rippon's response to the BBC press office's email about the programme – in which he says that the investigation has been dropped and reportedly accuses the Corporation's communications team of putting "the cart before the horse".
This correspondence is understood to have been copied to the Deputy Director of BBC News, Stephen Mitchell, and raises further questions as to how much the BBC executive team knew of the strength of Newsnight's evidence on Savile, ahead of the tribute programme on 28 December. After news emerged that ITV was planning a documentary on allegations of sexual abuse by Savile, Ms MacKean is understood to have made a late attempt to salvage the Newsnight piece but was told "we are not going to jump on the ITV bandwagon".
Panorama is hoping to screen its documentary on Monday evening. Jones is now working with the flagship investigative team – which is a fierce rival of Newsnight's – although he is understood to have only a consultancy role. The Panorama programme is expected to be presented by Scottish-based presenter Shelley Jofre, who had no connection with the previous investigation.
Mr Horrocks' decision to hold talks yesterday with the two Newsnight journalists was regarded within the BBC news division as a signal of his intention to take a leading role in the crisis, which has raised doubts about Mr Entwistle's future as Director-General.
Mr Horrocks's role on the Savile story is the result of Director of News Helen Boaden having to stand back from coverage of the issue as she was head of the chain of command when the piece was dropped. The BBC says this was an editorial decision taken by Mr Rippon.
Earlier this week, the Culture Secretary Maria Miller called on the chair of the BBC Trust Lord Patten to seek assurances that the BBC's independent reviews into the Savile affair, one led by former High Court judge Dame Janet Smith, the other by former head of Sky News Nick Pollard, will have "unfettered access" to all sources of information.
Yesterday, Scotland Yard announced that Operation Yewtree, the inquiry into alleged child sexual exploitation by Savile and others, has become a formal criminal investigation. After two weeks of gathering information from both the public and a number of organisations, more than 400 lines of inquiry have been assessed and over 200 potential victims have been identified.
A spokesman for Scotland Yard said: "As we have said from the outset, our work was never going to take us into a police investigation into Jimmy Savile. What we have established in the past two weeks is that there are lines of inquiry involving living people that require formal investigation."
Peter Watt, head of the NSPCC's helpline, said: "It's now looking possible that Jimmy Savile was one the most prolific sex offenders the NSPCC has ever come across. We have received more than 136 calls directly relating to allegations against him which we've passed to the police."
A BBC spokesman said: "The BBC has confirmed it has launched an independent review led by former court of appeal judge Dame Janet Smith which will cover these questions. It would not be appropriate to comment further until these have been concluded."
Smoking gun? Email to Entwistle
Sent: Mon 8/10/2012
From: Liz MacKean, Newsnight
To: George Entwistle, Director-General
Ever since the report was dropped [by the BBC], just ahead of it being edited, there have been repeated misleading statements from the press office about the nature of our investigation… Worst of all has been what seems like a concerted effort to make it appear that our story was about something else, something that could be dropped and forgotten ahead of fulsome tribute programmes. It is this which seems to be fuelling the damaging claims of a cover-up.