The decision to drop Newsnight’s investigation into the Jimmy Savile child sex abuse scandal was “flawed” but taken in “good faith” – and was not the result of inappropriate managerial pressure, a report into the corporation has concluded.
The £2m Pollard Review, an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the controversy undertaken by former head of Sky News Nick Pollard, was heavily critical of the BBC’s “complete inability” to deal with the fallout from editor Peter Rippon’s decision to scrap the story.
When the full force of the scandal erupted in October the BBC’s management systems “proved completely incapable of dealing with it”.
The review trawled through 10,000 emails and conducted interviews with 19 individuals.
The Newsnight investigation into Savile was initially solely focused on claims of sexual abuse by the former TV presenter and the investigative team did not know that the police investigated the claims.
But as the story progressed the actions of Surrey Police and the Crown Prosecution Service eventually became the “central reason” why editor Peter Rippon said he dropped the story.
Critical to today’s report was the decision by deputy director of news Stephen Mitchell – who it emerged today has resigned from the corporation – to take the Savile story off the BBC’s Managed Risk Programmes List (MRPL), by which stories that carry some element of risk are flagged up to management across the BBC.
Pollard found Mitchell could offer “no convincing reason” as to why he pulled the story from the MRPL, while head of news Helen Boaden also agreed it “made no sense”.
Had he not pulled the story from the MRPL it could well have impacted on the decision to air tributes to Jimmy Savile after his death.
Mitchell offered two reasons for the decision. The first was that the risk of reputational harm was “not a relevant risk for the MRPL”, a claim described as “extraordinary” by BBC chairman Lord Patten.
His second explanation was that it had been too early for the Savile story to appear on the list. Pollard said this explanation was “unconvincing” and “inconsistent” with other projects featured on the list.
On 21 November 2011 Mitchell and Rippon held a meeting in which Mitchell told the editor about an upcoming Christmas tribute programme to Savile. Pollard said: “… I do not conclude that, during this meeting, Mr Mitchell put any pressure on Mr Rippon not to run the Newsnight programme."
But on his decision to pull the Savile story from the MRPL, he said: “I can only conclude he [Mitchell] did so because of a misconceived notion that the programme was potentially so sensitive that it should not appear on the list (but that Mr Entwistle should instead be verbally warned about the risk by Ms Boaden).”
Pollard was unable to say what would have happened had Mitchell not taken that step, but added that at the very least it “would have opened the door for appropriate conversations among senior BBC management about the nature of the Newsnight investigation”.
He added that Mitchell was “not helped” by the fact there were no written guidelines on whether stories should be added to the risk list.
The first time that former BBC director-general George Entwistle learned of the Newsnight investigation was at a lunch organised by Women in Film and Television on 2 December 2011, after Mitchell suggested to Boaden that it would be “a kindness to George” to let him know.
Entwistle told Pollard that he took no action in response to Boaden’s warning. Pollard concluded that raising the issue at a lunch was “inappropriate”, adding: “It was too casual, too fleeting and left much uncertainty about the outcome.”
The former Sky News chief rejected outright any suggestion that “inappropriate management pressure” influenced Rippon’s decision.
Both Newsnight reporter Meirion Jones and Liz Mackean believed this to be the case but Pollard noted that neither had any firm evidence.
While Mitchell was said to have influenced Rippon during a conversation on 29 November 2011 – after which Rippon appeared to go cool on the story, reflecting a “dramatic shift” having previously been “full steam ahead” – there was “no reason to believe that what Mitchell said was 'inappropriate'".
Nor was there any reason to suggest Mitchell wanted to protect the Savile tribute programmes.
Rippon later told Pollard that he was “guilty of self-censorship”.
Pollard made a number of recommendations including a widespread review of the BBC’s news and editorial management, questioning whether the director-general’s status as editor-in-chief of the corporation should continue.
He also recommended strengthening the role of the MRPL, dismissed by Rippon as a “bureaucratic nicety”.
In response to today’s report the BBC Trust admitted there were “serious failings in editorial oversight and management control” but added that on the most important point – that of undue influence from senior management – the corporation had been cleared.
“The BBC portrayed by the Pollard review is not fundamentally flawed, but has been chaotic,” said the Trust. “That now needs to change.”
The BBC executive board said the report made for “uncomfortable reading” and that it accepted Pollard’s recommendations in full.
It announced that the senior editorial team at Newsnight will be replaced with the appointment of a new editor and deputy editor. The new BBC director-general Tony Hall will be tasked with undertaking a major review of editorial controls and management when he arrives next year.
Adrian Van Klaveren, the head of Radio 5 who approved the Newsnight documentary linking Lord McAlpine to child abuse claims, has been moved to a non-news position.
Commenting on his departure after the report was published Mitchell said:
It is with great sadness that I have decided to retire from the BBC after more than 38 years’ service of which I am very proud and which I have found greatly enjoyable.
Given the strain over the past month since being told to stand aside from the job I loved, having endured the Pollard review process and now having read its criticisms, I have decided that it is in my interests and those of the BBC that I bring my career to a dignified end.
Whilst I feel vindicated that the review has found that I put no undue pressure on Peter Rippon, I disagree with the remainder of Mr Pollard's criticisms in relation to me.
I am pleased that the Pollard review recognises that all editorial decisions in connection with the Savile story were taken in good faith, for journalistic reasons. I accept that Nick Pollard, with the benefit of hindsight, has also disagreed with some of the decisions I have made on this occasion.
The job of an editor is complex and challenging, and I have never shirked from my responsibilities in performing it. As an editor, I have been responsible for hundreds of stories that are aired, and many more that are not. I am tremendously proud of the work that BBC journalists in my team have achieved throughout my time at Newsnight. This includes breaking major stories about child abuse and those who perpetrate it.
Editorial decisions are taken on the basis of weighing up often complicated situations and sets of evidence, and can always be second-guessed. On this occasion, I am being judged not about what we broadcast, but what we did not, and this means that will always be questions about whether more could have been done to get the item on air. However, I do not agree that my decision on this occasion was flawed.
Of course, like everyone at the BBC connected with this case, I will learn lessons from what has happened, as I move on with my career. The BBC itself has an overriding responsibility to foster and support good journalism, and to respond proportionately when that journalism is challenged. Nick Pollard has raised questions about whether the BBC has been able to do this, and I agree with him that change is necessary.
Given all that has happened regarding the programme over the last few months, I recognise that it is right for Newsnight now to have a fresh start. It is a wonderful programme, which I have had the privilege of editing for more than four years, and I look forward to its continued success.
I welcome Nick Pollard’s independent report. He answers the main question his review was asked in unequivocal terms: no one in BBC management put Peter Rippon under any pressure to drop Newsnight’s Savile investigation. (Pollard Part 2, Page 22, Point 3).
Pollard makes clear that I played no part in determining the fate of the Newsnight exposé on Jimmy Savile. I had no involvement whatsoever in the decision not to broadcast the piece and at no time did I seek to influence the decision or have any impact on it.
The Pollard report also concludes that the main reason the BBC did not have a wider awareness of the content of Newsnight’s aborted Savile investigation in the last months of 2011 was the withholding of the item from the Managed Risk Programme List, whose express purpose is to ensure matters of corporate concern are brought to a wider internal audience.
As director general, in October 2012, as soon as I became aware of allegations of sexual abuse against Savile, I took the matter straight to the police and offered the BBC’s full cooperation with their investigations.
Pollard’s report underlines the fact that any managerial shortcomings relating to Newsnight’s aborted Savile investigation were largely the result of unsatisfactory internal communications. These flowed from silos and other structural issues that I had identified when I became DG and had begun work to resolve. I welcome Nick Pollard’s recommendations in this area.
I took the decision to resign as director-general in November 2012 because I thought it was important to take responsibility, as head of the organisation, for the mistakes Newsnight made in its report on child abuse in North Wales.
I am pleased that the Pollard report makes it clear I played no part whatever in Newsnight’s decision not to broadcast the original Savile investigation – just as I was not personally to blame in any way for the journalistic failures on Newsnight when it broadcast its erroneous report about the North Wales care home.
With Nick Pollard’s work now concluded, I look forward to taking time to consider my future plans.