BBC boss under pressure over 'barely credible' Savile stance
Why was George Entwistle made DG if he's really so uninterested in programme content?
PRESSURE is mounting on the newly appointed BBC Director-General George Entwistle after he claimed that he had never asked what was the content of a Newsnight programme about Jimmy Savile that was suddenly dropped by the programme's editor last December. Media commentators and BBC insiders have called Entwistle's claim "barely credible" and "ridiculous".
MP John Whittingdale, chairman of the culture, media and sport committee, has said he is consulting colleagues on whether to summon Entwistle for urgent questioning.
One senior British television executive has even suggested that if this had blown up before Mark Thompson stood down as DG a month ago, Entwistle would never have been given the job.
There are two clouds hanging over Entwistle...
The first cloud is his claim that no evidence could be found in the files at the BBC of any reports or allegations of sexual abuse of children by Savile during his long years as one of the corporation's biggest entertainment stars. Amid the welter of evidence now coming forth, from colleagues and executives who were concerned about the DJ's behaviour as far back as the 1960s, this claim seems unbelievable to many.
The fact that Savile was not well liked by colleagues makes the lack of complaints or allegations against him more surprising. Fellow Radio 1 DJ and Top of the Pops presenter Tony Blackburn said at the weekend: "Jimmy Savile was never a friend. He was not a nice man despite how the public viewed him."
'Diddy' David Hamilton told The Sunday Times: "The truth is Jimmy Savile was very much a loner. I doubt if he had a friend among the other DJs and he didn't socialise with any of us... In hindsight, his charity work was a convenient cover for his secret lifestyle."
The second cloud is the matter of the investigation into sex abuse allegations against Savile that was suddenly dropped by Newsnight editor Peter Rippon shortly before Christmas last year.
Rippon has always insisted that he abandoned the documentary for editorial reasons, saying the story was not strong enough. But several Newsnight staffers have claimed they were very close to finishing a “compelling” documentary. As a result, the full reason for dropping it, and the question of who precisely was involved in the decision, has long been a subject of conjecture within the BBC.
At a press conference last week, Entwistle claimed he had nothing to do with the decision. Although he was head of BBC Vision at the time - in overall charge of commissioning, producing, and broadcasting all BBC TV content - he claimed he did not want to be seen to interfere in the “independence of news and current affairs”.
As a result, he says, he had no knowledge of the programme’s content. He said Helen Boaden, head of news, had told him that Newsnight was planning a Savile programme and that he responded: “Thanks for letting me know”. But he said he never asked what angle the programme was taking.
Yet as head of vision, Entwistle would have been involved in the upcoming broadcast of two Savile tribute shows over Christmas. This raises the question: surely he would have wanted to know - and had the right to know - if Newsnight was planning something that might overshadow these tributes?
His denial of any involvement in the Newsnight decision has brought a stream of disbelieving comment from BBC insiders and media watchers.
"The idea that he didn't know is barely credible," said Steve Hewlett, presenter of BBC Radio 4's The Media Show. He said Entwistle's denial was "simply implausible".
An unnamed member of the BBC newsroom source told The Independent on Sunday: "It defies credibility that he [Entwistle] didn't try to find this out. The idea that, as head of vision, in charge of the Christmas schedule, he just said 'Thanks for letting me know' is ridiculous.
"The best thing you can say is he looks completely incurious to the point of being irresponsible. He looks hopeless."
One of British TV's most experienced non-BBC executives, David Elstein, former boss of Channel 5, said Entwistle would have to be "pretty brain dead" not to have inquired about the programme's subject matter. Elstein told the Independent that if all this had come up before Mark Thompson stood down as DG a month ago, it is unlikely Entwistle would have been appointed.
A BBC inquiry has been ordered into how the Newsnight investigation came to be dropped, and according to The Times, Entwistle himself will be interviewed. Whether this will throw any light on the mystery is uncertain, given Entwistle's responses so far.
Also awaited by those watching this saga is a BBC Panorama report about the allegations against Savile. The project is being led by the distinguished investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who was working on the Newsnight investigation when it was axed. According to The Guardian, Panorama are working on a "quick turnaround", which suggests a broadcast date before the end of November.
According to the Independent, Newsnight had spoken to at least 10 women including witnesses and victims. One insider reportedly said: "It was compelling stuff. We were within days of going with it. The programme wasn't cut and finished. But all the heavy lifting had been done."
The announcement to staff that the investigation had been dropped was delivered verbally. There may therefore be no email trail, said the insider.
Reports that within the Newsnight team there was some ambivalence over the programme's demise can be explained, says the Independent, by the fact that very few people were aware of how strong the material was. ·