Paxman: 'What was the BBC doing promoting this absurd and malign figure?'

Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman branded ex-editor Peter Rippon’s decision not to cover the story about the programme's own failure to air child abuse allegations against Jimmy Savile “pathetic”.

The comments were made during an interview forming part of the detailed review into the controversial decision to drop the Savile story, transcripts of which were published for the first time by the BBC today.

In it Paxman paints a picture of a programme struggling to deal with budget cuts and a highly risk averse senior management who were “preoccupied with their pensions”.

Elsewhere in the transcripts Paxman:

  • Says he realised the decision not to run the Savile story was wrong when the “shit hit the fan” after ITV’s documentary into the sex abuse scandal
  • Believes it was “incumbent” on Newsnight to “pursue the investigation until you get it, not run away with it”
  • Asks: “What was the BBC doing promoting this absurd figure, this absurd and malign figure?
  • Calls the BBC’s press office “terrible”

Paxman, who said he had never met the “repellent” Savile, said that after the Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly there was a “general drawing of the horns” at the BBC and a cultural change that saw news “taken over” by radio.

Then head of news Helen Boaden, her deputy Steve Mitchell and Rippon all had backgrounds in radio, noted Paxman. “These people belong to a different kind of culture,” said Paxman.

When former Newsnight editor Peter Barron left to join Google the programme lost a “pretty free-thinking, creative, radical-ish” type. “When he left to go to Google, the question of his replacement came up and it was given to a man whose previous experience in – was almost entirely in radio, thereby completing the – as I saw it , the full takeover of television by radio.”

Paxman was initially reluctant to detail the difference between radio and television people, but later said they had a greater “preoccupation with the institution” of the BBC.

Television, he said, was a “younger person’s game, with “a greater loyalty to the programme and an “extremely competitive environment”, while in radio “there are – with fewer older people in it and fewer people , I would say, preoccupied with their pensions”.

Asked when he realised the decision not to run the Savile story was wrong, Paxman replied: “I will be perfectly frank. I formed it when the shit hit the fan. I mean – sorry. I formed it when the – some time around the time that the ITV thing aired.”

The reason he was so unhappy was because “the judgment that we made was the judgment that authority figures always make when dealing with these children”.

He added: “These people prey upon children in vulnerable situations, and when the children complain, they are not believed, because if you ever get them in court, it is well known that clever lawyers can discredit them because of their chaotic lives the problems they have had with the police and so on.

“And I thought that we had behaved just like many other authorities, and I didn’t like it.”

Days before ITV aired their Savile documentary Paxman spoke with Rippon urging him to run a piece on Newsnight’s decision to drop the report.

Rippon told him: “I am sorry, I just can’t do this.” Paxman found the use of the word can’t a “very, very unusual word to use”, adding: “What do you mean you ‘can’t’? Has someone told you that you can’t, or you physically can’t face it?”

“Now, I think – my suspicion is that there may well have been an element of both.”

He later called the BBC’s press office “terrible”, claiming there was “a real problem in finding spokesmen who will defend an articulate point of view”, adding: “we wouldn’t even tackle a bloody story that was about our programme. This is pathetic.”

At the conclusion of the interview Paxman said: “I think there is one thing here. It may be to do with how – the question – the really important question here is: what was the BBC doing?”

He added: “But what was the BBC doing promoting this absurd figure, this absurd and malign figure?

“And I think that this is to do with the fact of the BBC having been aloof from popular culture for so long.

“Suddenly pirate radio comes along and all these people in metaphorical cardigans suddenly have to deal with an influx – once pirate radio – once pop radio broadcasting is legalised, they suddenly have to deal with an influx of people from a very, very different culture and they never got control of them and I am not sure even now they have.”

“That is the reason there are ongoing legacy issues here too. But they – they have never felt comfortable with popular culture, and they have therefore given those who claim to perpetrate it too much licence, and that is why, when anyone looks at the question of the licence fee, they always raise questions about Radio One, for example.

“So I think that is – I think that is the bigger challenge the organisation faces, that it has not really properly defined what its core value are… And they can sloganise about that, they can do that to their heart’s content, but how those core values are properly expressed in a multiplicity of media and across various platforms.

“I think that is the real essential problem here that hasn’t been engaged with, and they need to do that badly.”

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