Peter Rippon is unlikely to be the only BBC casualty of the Savile scandal

The question director general George Entwistle must answer is why he still ran the Savile eulogy.

A former editor of Panorama said last week that it "beggars belief" that the person who put the eulogy of Jimmy Savile on BBC TV did not know about Newsnight’s investigation into the DJ’s paedophilia. That person was George Entwistle, the newly installed director general and a major reason why this affair has now spiralled into what the lugubrious John Simpson described as "the worst crisis" facing the Corporation in 50 years.

An inquiry into how Savile managed to escape BBC action over five decades is yet to begin, but the fall-out has already started. And it is ironic that the next step in this now apparently out-of-control scandal will be taken by Panorama itself in a special investigation at 10.30 tonight. This led to the first internal casualty from the affair this morning when the BBC announced that Newsnight editor Peter Rippon was “standing aside” during investigations into why he scrapped a report into Savile’s paedophilia. He could be “standing aside” for quite some time.

Even as Panorama’s grim conclusions were being leaked in advance to every newspaper in the land, the mad scramble by other BBC news programmes to distance themselves from any guilt by association continued apace. With Radio’s 4 and 5 feverishly competing with the news channel, BBC1 and BBC2, any attempt to get control of the situation failed as the story was swamped at every opportunity. Everybody who was anybody, and several who weren’t, were being booked and counter-booked to demonstrate the BBC’s impartiality over itself. And it is clear that the potential involvement of editor-in-chief Entwistle has paralysed other BBC bosses as they too manoeuvre to remain untainted by it.

It was Steve Hewlett, the former Panorama editor turned media pundit, who articulated the key question about the new DG’s involvement last week. We know from tonight’s programme that BBC Head of News Helen Boaden had a "10 second" conversation about the Newsnight Savile investigation with Entwistle before the programme was aired last year.

What we do not know is why Entwistle, a distinguished journalist in his own right, did nothing about it. His defence so far is that he was observing the traditional Chinese walls between news and other programmes to prevent interference. Which leads many to what they see as the killer question. Having been told that Newsnight had concerns about Jimmy Savile, why did he nonetheless run the eulogy without further inquiry? This, as Steve said, ”beggars belief.” And it is Entwistle's involvement in the whole affair that has led to the total confusion that now surrounds it. His first attempt to get a grip was to announce an independent investigation into the Newsnight decision by former Sky News chief Nick Pollard. But even before Pollard could dig out his notebook, Panorama, aided by the Newsnight team, whose original story was spiked, announced their own inquiry - and who in the BBC would dare say no.

With Pollad still not in the door, Entwistle, who refused to be interviewed by the BBC’s own programme, then contacted the House of Commons culture select committee and volunteered to meet them tomorrow. By the time he turns up at the committee, he will be faced with the very questions Panorama wanted to ask and answers will be expected.

The whole fiasco has come as welcome relief to the government, in the stocks for its own incompetence, and a welcome early Christmas present for the traditional BBC-bashers of Fleet Street. But the wider issues of the scandal also look bad for the Corporation whose new leader is self-hobbled in his attempts to get back in control. Rippon may not be the only casualty.

People walk near the entrance to BBC Broadcasting House on October 22, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear