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

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.