Barely a month into the job, the new Director-General of the BBC finds himself in serious trouble over claims that a flagship news programme dropped an investigation into allegations of sex abuse by the late Jimmy Savile because the Corporation was preparing a major Christmas tribute to the man who was once one of its most popular entertainers.
When the truth emerges, it may be of confusion rather than conspiracy in the senior echelons of the BBC. But George Entwistle has a number of awkward questions to answer when he appears before a House of Commons committee today. The revelations in last night's Panorama programme into the Savile investigation dropped by rival Newsnight has only added to them. So has the decision that Newsnight's editor, Peter Rippon, should "step aside" from his job after embarrassing admissions that his initial explanation for dropping the probe was "inaccurate and incomplete".
But the most difficult questions concern the role of Mr Entwistle himself. Why, in his then job as head of television, did he go ahead with broadcasting the Savile tribute after being told that Newsnight was investigating him? What exactly was he told by the BBC's Head of News, Helen Boaden, last December, when she flagged up the potential conflict? And why did he not ask for more details about the nature of the story? The suggestion that he believed it was not his place to interfere in the work of another BBC department cannot but raise issues about his judgement.
Nor is that the full extent of the explanations due from Mr Entwistle on behalf of the BBC. What did Ms Boaden and her deputy say to Mr Rippon when he discussed the investigation with them? Why did he so rapidly change his view of the story? Why, if the editor felt the evidence was insufficient, did he drop the investigation rather than instructing his journalists to search for further corroboration? The BBC exists, above all, on the basis of the trust of its audience, its chairman Lord Patten has said recently. Answers to these questions are essential for that trust to be preserved.
That said, it should not be overlooked that it is the BBC itself, through Panorama, that is shining so unforgiving a light on its own practices. More important still is that peripheral matters as to how the Savile affair emerged are in danger of distracting attention from the real issue. After a preliminary analysis of 400 lines of inquiry, involving more than 200 potential victims, Scotland Yard has launched a formal investigation into allegations of crimes not just by Savile, but by living individuals suspected of being complicit or negligent in situations which allowed the former TV star to abuse children. And these attacks took place not only on BBC premises but in Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Leeds General Infirmary, at Broadmoor and elsewhere within the NHS. It is here, in the substance of the Savile case, that investigation must be targeted and lessons learned.
The failures extend beyond the places where such abuse took place. There are questions to be asked about how Savile used his status as a charity fundraiser and TV presenter to get access to places where there were vulnerable teenage girls he could abuse. There are questions about why those sections of the media which are now using the Savile scandals as a stick with which to beat the BBC did not themselves expose the presenter over the long decades of his abuses.
To focus on the minutiae of a BBC news investigation, after Savile had died, is to miss the point. Criticism of the BBC may be just, but it must be kept in proportion.Reuse content