The BBC knew Jimmy Savile was a paedophile but still pressed ahead with Christmas tribute broadcasts to him in December 2011.
This was the stark assessment of Newnight journalist Meirion Jones in spoken evidence given to Stephen Pollard on 12 November 2012 as part of his investigation into the Savile scandal.
Jones also said that be believed his then editor, Peter Rippon, was “leaned on from above” to abandon the Savile investigation. And he said there was something “horribly wrong” with the management structure of the BBC which meant his warnings about the impending scandal set to hit the broadcaster were not heeded.
Jones’ testimony reveals that by 25 November 2011 the Newsnight investigation into allegations of child abuse against Savile was scheduled for transmission and had been given the “green light” by Rippon.
Jones said that by 14 November he had become aware that there were plans for a Christmas tribute to Jimmy Savile fronted by Shane Ritchie.
By the end of November 2011, Jones describes the position with the Newsnight report as follows:
“We by then have abuse, we think, at the BBC, at Duncroft, at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. We now think we have pictures of him at Haute de la Garenne. We know he’s involved with loads of other institutions all over the country where he’s sleeping overnight, has access to people.
“We have come to the view – with the help of Mark Williams-Thomas who has looked at people like this before – that this is a predatory paedophile who is using institutions all over the country. And our expectation – it’s not hindsight – our expectation is that where we run this story we’re going to get a hundred victims coming forward. That’s what we expect to happen.
“This is no longer ‘Was he a paedophile?…By this stage we are seeing something that looks like a major story, a major predatory paedophile.”
On Sunday 27 November Jones contacted BBC lawyer Roger Law. He said: “Roger, can we have a chat on Monday about Jimmy Savile? We are organising our own Newsnight tribute to him before the BBC special edition of Jim’ll Fix It to salute him this Christmas.”
Jones said: “Plainly I did not think the tribute would go out. How could the tribute go out? I couldn’t believe there was any chance now of the tribute going out after the 25th.”
On 30 November, Rippon sent Jones an email which changed the criteria under which the Savile story was being judged.
Jones said: “I was absolutely shaken by it. I wasn’t expecting it. It just appeared to be bringing in a bar that hadn’t been there before.”
The Rippon email said:
“Having pondered overnight I think the key is whether we can establish the CPS did drop the case for the reasons the women say [that Savile was too old]. That makes it a much better story. Our sources so far are just the women and the secondhand briefing…”
The “briefing” referred to is the evidence of Mark Williams-Thomas – a consultant on the Newsnight report, who much later eventually broke the story for ITV.
Jones said: ”I’m pretty sure, though, that I said on the 30th we would be accused of a cover-up if we did this, because we had clear evidence of abuse on BBC premises. Christmas specials were coming up, I’m pretty sure I said all this stuff on the 30th.”
There was a “full and frank exchange of views”, as Pollard puts it, between Newsnight journalist Liz MacKean, Jones and Rippon in a meeting on the 30th.
Jones said that Rippon said words to the effect of “I can’t go to the wall on this one”.
As late as 2 December Jones was hopeful that the Savile documentary would still go out, to the extent that he hired a vintage Rolls Royce to film segments at Duncroft approved school.
Jones said he assumed that the “force of my arguments” had been passed on by Rippon up the chain of command to then deputy head of news Steve Mitchell (now resigned) and then head of news Helen Boaden (now director of radio).
“It would have been career suicide for him not to pass on to his bosses that two senior journalists on his team were saying: ‘If you don’t run this story, forget whether it is right or wrong to run it, but if you don’t run it, the consequences for the BBC are going to be disastrous, absolutely disastrous, because all those people out there will be saying you knew he was a paedophile, you ran the tributes knowing he was a paedophile. How could you do that? We trust the BBC’.”
Asked why Jones did not go over Rippon’s head to ensure that senior managers were aware of his fears, he said: “It is difficult to explain if you are outside the BBC. That’s not the culture. And it’s not only that it would reflect badly on you if you did that, it would reflect badly on your editor that his troops are out of line.”
Asked why he thought the programme was dropped because of wider “non-journalistic corporate interests” he said: “Firstly the enthusiasm for the story, ‘Excellent prepare for transmission’, the enthusiasm in the rest of the BBC for the story, let’s go out all outlets, but certainly the handbrake turn.”
Pollard said that Danny Cohen and others in BBC Vision did not know about the Savile allegations, so “why shouldn’t they run the tributes”.
“Because from the inside we internally were making all these division between bits of the BBC and so on. From the outside the BBC knew he was a paedophile and they ran the tributes.
“It doesn’t matter which individuals knew that, it was important for the BBC to find a way of stopping that happening. If it’s management doesn’t work in a way that allows that to happen, there’s something very wrong with the management process…
“If I feed in to my editor that Savile is a paedophile and that tributes planned to him, if the system doesn’t work in a way that that message gets up to a level – I mean, I think that message should get to DG level, frankly. If that message doesn’t get up there, there’s something horribly wrong with the BBC management structure”.
On December 9 Newsnight received a long-awaited statement from the CPS in relation to the Savile allegations. It said that no action was taken against Savile “due to lack of evidence” – not because he was too old, as some of the victims had alleged.
At this point Rippon sent an email to Steve Mitchell saying: “As a result Meirion has accepted my view and agreed not to pursue it any more.”
Jones: “Accepted my view means I’d have a think about do I essentially walk away from the BBC or accept his editorial decision however wrong I thought it was, and I decided to stay in the BBC.”
Jones said that Rippon had not looked through the detailed evidence of the Savile investigation and did not tell reporters to go back to find more evidence, as he could have done, but instead the decision was made to stop pursuing the story.
He said: “As far as I’m concerned, I have been told to stop”.
Jones said his impression was that Rippon had been “leant on from on high” to drop the Savile story.
This was informed, he said, by a 180-degree turn on a story” and “the indications he gives me and Liz MacKean that this is stuff coming from above…and three, putting up an arbitrary barrier to being broadcast”.