Former Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman has written of the “clever, sophisticated” people at the BBC who ensured that his programme’s investigation into Jimmy Savile was dropped in December 2011.
He has written about how Meirion Jones and Liz MacKean’s investigation into Savile was shaping up to be a huge story – with one hundred potential victims sex abuse. But also noted the realisation that it could be embarassing for the BBC because the corporation had tribute programmes planned for the late DJ.
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In an extract from his memoirs, serialised in The Times, he said: “Any direct attempt to halt a highly embarrassing investigation was doomed to fail: our self-respect would demand that we ignore any request from elsewhere in the organisation to drop the story. But the BBC is full of clever, sophisticated people who could ensure that nothing so crude as a confrontation occurred.
“At this point the editor Peter Rippon suddenly changed his tune. One week he was keen to run a piece on Newsnight about paedophilia. The next, he said the real issue was whether the Crown Prosecution Service had failed to prosecute Savile because he was too old.
“This was a story the team did not have, for the simple reason that it was not the story they were pursuing. Had someone leant on him to squash the investigation?
“It is fair to say that Rippon, a stolid man whose previous career had been spent in radio, did not command the respect of the team. He never seemed to get to grips with the mechanics of the new medium, or to share our enthusiasm for a good scrap.”
Paxman said he argued with him that the Savile investigation should be broadcast, to be told “I can’t do that” – which Paxman said “struck me as a strange choice of words”.
He added: “In the end an editor has to edit, and you can’t go on indefinitely arguing the toss. I, Meirion, Liz and everyone else bit our tongues and accepted his judgment.”
Paxman has also shed light on the aftermath of the Newsnight broadcast just under a year later in which it wrongly suggested Lord McAlpine was involved in child abuse (without naming him).
The BBC was forced to make a swift apology and later paid him £185,000 in libel damages.
Paxman wrote: “That Friday — a week after the fateful broadcast — Eddie Mair was guest-presenting the programme. The poor fellow, who is certainly one of the finest news broadcasters in Britain, and probably the best of all of them, was told to begin with an apology. He refused: he had had nothing to do with the affair.
“In the corporation’s usual fashion, deputy heads rolled: Newsnight’s deputy editor and the former deputy head of the News Division were removed from their posts (also in true BBC fashion, both were subsequently promoted).”
He noted that Rippon, who was moved sideways in 2012 to the job of editing the BBC Archive, was “sent to take on what the BBC described as ‘a significant challenge’, looking after the corporation’s paperclip supply”.
A spokesperson for the BBC said: “The Pollard Inquiry examined this at length and concluded there was not any inappropriate managerial pressure or consideration that influenced the editor of Newsnight not to run the Savile story. It found that while the decision to drop the original investigation was flawed, it was taken in good faith.”