Attitudes inside the BBC towards sexual exploitation of teenage girls have changed since the 1960s, when Jimmy Savile started out as a serial abuser – but not enough, the Director General of the BBC told MPs today.
George Entwistle faced hours of grilling by members of the Commons Culture Committee, on the morning after a Panorama programme seen by 5.1 million viewers showed how the former disc jockey had been able to get away with his activities across four decades, including abusing young girls on BBC premises.
His appearance coincided with an announcement that two charities linked with Jimmy Savile are to close down. The trustees of the Jimmy Savile Charitable Trust and the Jimmy Savile Stoke Mandeville Hospital Trust, which operates independently of the hospital, said they had given "much consideration" to a possible change of name but added: whatever new name they may adopt, the charities will always be linked in the public's mind with the late Jimmy Savile. The trustees cannot see a future for either charity.”
Mr Entwistle heaped blame for the decision not to broadcast a Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile’s activities last year on the programme’s Editor, Peter Rippon. He denied that he had personally failed to show leadership, telling MPs: “The system failed.”
The Tory MP Philip Davies demanded to know whether there have been similar allegation s about anyone now working for the BBC. He was told: “New allegations are being made and are coming in. What I am looking at is all the existing current allegations."
He added that he would be "worried if there was anything in excess of five" sexual harassment claims made a year against BBC employees - but insisted no level of cases was acceptable.”
Mr Entwistle also said that watching the Panorama programme last night had convinced that the BBC was wrong not to broadcast an earlier investigation by Newsnight, in which Kiran Ward, a former pupil at Duncroft Approve School, in Middlesex, described being abused by Savile, and seeing others being exploited by him and by the singer Gary Glitter.
The decision not to broadcast was made by the editor of Newsnight, Peter Rippon, who “stepped aside” form his post on Monday after the BBC had admitted that a blog he had written defending his decision was inaccurate.
In an email sent last November, Peter Rippon pointed out "our sources so far are just the women" – a remark which the Conservative MP Therese Coffey said was "chilling."
Mr Entwistle said: "That phrase, on the face of it, isn't in the least defensible, of course. I do believe the culture has changed since the Seventies and Eighties but I'm not convinced it has changed as much as it should have.
"This is something the BBC simply has to get right and I'm not sure we have got it right in every respect at the moment."
He added that he is bringing in Dinah Rose QC to look at how the BBC handles sexual harassment cases.
Mr Entwistle rejected an accusation that the BBC had handled the scandal badly. He admitted that it was “a very, very grave matter indeed”, and said that when the scale and credibility of the allegations came to light he immediately personally contacted the police.
But when the committee chairman, John Whittingdale suggested that there were serious questions to be answered about whether the BBC had attempted to suppress the truth “to avoid embarrassment” Mr Entwistle replied: “No, I wouldn't accept that. I would accept that there have been times when we have taken longer to do things than in a perfect world I would have liked.
”But I think if you looked at what we have achieved since the scale of the crisis became clear, I think you see we have done much of what we should have done and done it in the right order and with proper respect paid to the right authorities.“
Mr Entwistle’s appearance at the committee comes just hours after the BBC was accused of a fresh cover-up, after it emerged that its lawyers blocked the publication of emails implicating senior executives in the decision to drop a Newsnight investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile.
The Daily Telegraph reported that a series of emails sent by the reporter Liz MacKean to an unnamed friend were blocked from appearing in last night’s Panorama investigation into the BBC’s reaction to the Jimmy Savile scandal.
In one email, sent on November 30 2011, Ms MacKean described how Peter Rippon, the Newsnight editor, was having a “panic attack” about the affair. He allegedly told Ms MacKean it was “a very long political chain”.
Mr Entwistle admitted the scandal had raised questions of trust and reputation in the BBC.
He told MPs: ”There's no question that what Jimmy Savile did and the way the BBC behaved ... the culture and practices of the BBC seems to allow Jimmy Savile to do what he did, will raise question of trust for us and reputation for us. There's no question about that.
“It is a gravely serious matter and one cannot look back at it with anything but horror that his activities went on as long as they did undetected.
”Of course, that is a matter of grave regret to me.“
Mr Entwistle said the inquiry by Nick Pollard, former head of Sky News, into why the Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile was dropped is expected to report back ”in weeks“.
He admitted a factually inaccurate account of the scandal in a blog by Newsnight editor Peter Rippon, who stepped aside yesterday, had caused embarrassment.
Mr Entwistle said: ”If I can take the correction to the blog first, there's no doubt that it is a matter of regret and embarrassment that the version of events recorded in Peter Rippon's blog on October 2 did not turn out to be as accurate as they should have been.“
Mr Rippon defended his decision to axe the report in a BBC blog earlier this month but yesterday the corporation issued a correction.
He originally said there was no evidence that staff at the Duncroft approved school could have known about allegations that Savile abused children, but the BBC said: ”In fact, some allegations were made (mostly in general terms) that some of the Duncroft staff knew or may have known about the abuse.“
Mr Rippon also said the women who spoke to Newsnight journalists had already spoken to police, but the BBC now says that is untrue and Newsnight uncovered new evidence about Savile's alleged crimes.
The corrected blog post said that while no allegations were made that BBC staff were aware of Savile's behaviour, Newsnight did hear allegations of “abusive conduct on BBC premises“
Mr Entwistle told the committee that he had not personally spoken to any of those involved in preparing the Newsnight film.
He said he felt it was better to operate through the BBC "chain of command", so that he could remain an impartial judge of any subsequent disciplinary case, and had therefore left it to head of news Helen Boaden and deputy director of news Stephen Mitchell to deal directly with the programme.
He said: "I don't believe it would have been appropriate for me to do a detailed examination of what were contended-over documents myself, for fear that I would simply become irrevocably embroiled in that and unable to exercise the authority I am here to exercise as Director-General."
Mr Entwistle said Ms Boaden had spoken to the Newsnight team only briefly during the investigation.
"I understand that Helen's only conversation with Peter (Rippon) in respect of the Newsnight investigation was to remind him that, just because Jimmy Savile was dead, it didn't mean that there could be any skimping in journalistic standards, and that the usual BBC standards would apply," said Mr Entwistle.
Asked whether Mr Rippon might have interpreted that as pressure from above to drop the investigation, the Director-General replied: "I don't regard it as an inappropriate point in any sense to make to an editor. BBC journalistic standards are exactly what Helen is there to support."
Committee member Ben Bradshaw told Mr Entwistle that he appeared to have been "seriously let down by BBC managers".
But Mr Entwistle replied: "I don't think it's right to make that judgment now. The reviews are there to shed light on every aspect of this. Only once the reviews have heard evidence from all the relevant people and made a study of all the documentation will we know exactly what happened."
Mr Entwistle said he was "very disappointed indeed" to learn that a blog published under Mr Rippon's name was incorrect.
"What I relied upon is something that in my BBC career I've always been able to rely upon, which is the editor of a programme having a full grip and understanding of an investigation they were in charge of," he said. "In this case that doesn't appear to have been the case, and that is disappointing."