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.