Jimmy Savile: leaked email shakes BBC defence

Oct 19, 2012
Nigel Horne

As a crucial email is leaked to The Times, can Panorama get to the bottom of the great Newsnight mystery?

NEVER mind the coalition's latest omnishambles – or omnivoreshambles as the likely U-turn on the badger cull has been dubbed – what about the BBC's Jimmyshambles?

Ten days ago, it was announced that Panorama was to make a documentary about the controversial decision of Newsnight editor Peter Rippon to drop a Jimmy Savile investigation in December 2011, shortly before two Christmas tributes to the late presenter were due to be broadcast.

Joining the Panorama team to help make the new documentary would be Mierion Jones, the respected investigative film-maker who had led the doomed Newsnight investigation.

The Panorama programme would air, we were told, some time next month. Then it emerged this week that Panorama was planning to rush its investigation through and show the programme on Monday, 22 October – the night before BBC Director-General George Entwistle goes before the Commons Culture Committee to answer accusations that as head of Vision at the time, he, Entwistle, and/or head of News, Helen Boaden, might have put pressure on Newsnight to drop the embarrassing revelations about one of the BBC's star presenters – accusations they both deny.

Panorama's promised 'fast turnaround' immediately raised eyebrows in media circles, as the penny dropped: Panorama, no stranger to exposing institutional dodgy-dealing, looked set to shine a light on its own institution. If, in investigating the Newsnight saga, it means embarrassing BBC executives – possibly even including the new DG – then so be it.

Central to Peter Rippon's argument that he dropped the Newsnight programme "for editorial reasons" has been the claim that Newsnight was not investigating allegations of paedophilia against Savile per se, but the alleged failure by Surrey police to complete an investigation into Savile's behaviour.

Two weeks ago, David Jordan, director of editorial policy and standards at the BBC, stuck to this line when he told the Today programme: "What they [the Newsnight team] were looking at specifically was allegations that had been made to Surrey police in 2007 and they had themselves received an allegation that the investigation conducted by Surrey police in some way hadn't been done properly. They looked into that allegation and actually it turned out not to be true."

However, many BBC insiders have disputed this version of events. They have said that Newsnight HAD been looking into specific allegations of paedophilia against Savile and had brought together as many as ten alleged victims and witnesses. As The Week has reported before, unnamed members of Newsnight said they were close to completing a "compelling" programme about Savile's crimes when they were suddenly informed the programme had been abandoned.

Today, thanks to The Times, we have a new twist – which, as the paper says, "casts into doubt" the official BBC line and will "increase suspicions" that the Newsnight programme WAS dropped because it would clash with the Christmas tributes.

The Times has seen a leaked internal email from a BBC News press officer, Helen Deller, dated 7 December 2011, and sent to Peter Rippon and Mierion Jones. The email makes it clear that the Newsnight programme was well advanced and, because it mentions journalists "focusing on allegations of abuse", suggests strongly that Newsnight was investigating claims of paedophilia against Savile.

Deller said in the email that her department was preparing "lines to take" to respond to media and public questions after the planned broadcast. "We may well need to do a bit of managing around this," she wrote, adding: "We should bear in mind how BBC complaints team respond".

With Deller's email thought to be among the new evidence gathered by Panorama, the question now is who will get to the bottom of all this first – Panorama on Monday night, the MPs of the all-party Culture Committee on Tuesday, or the BBC's own internal investigation, headed by Nick Pollard, former head of Sky News?

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article was edited at 4.30pm to remove a claim that the Panorama programme might be delayed. BBC Knowledge has assured The Week that the programme will be broadcast on Monday. 

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