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The Savile scandal has thrust the BBC into one of the gravest crises in its history: in the words of Corporation veteran John Simpson, ‘the worst in my 50 years’.
Yesterday’s ‘temporary’ resignation by Newsnight’s editor is only a beginning. Some of the Corporation’s most senior executives, from the Director-General downwards, could well lose their jobs — and deserve to.
BBC Trust Chairman Lord Patten has spoken of a ‘cesspit’ of revelations and allegations. The entire moral ethos of the Corporation is being called into question.
Such a crunch is overdue.
Most of the men and women who rise to the top of the BBC hierarchy are self-serving bureaucrats of meagre abilities and scant editorial judgment. Their most conspicuous skill is in securing extravagant rewards. Their most consistent characteristic is cowardice.
In recent days, a succession of former BBC panjandrums has taken to the airwaves, to assert sanctimoniously it is unthinkable that top management would interfere in editorial decisions, as is alleged to have happened in the suppression of Newsnight’s report on Jimmy Savile’s paedophilia.
Yet every presenter and producer who has worked at the sharp end of the Corporation knows this claim for a travesty. Senior executives meddle constantly, almost always to stop the broadcasting of anything that might threaten their own chauffeur-driven existences.
In the early Seventies, I worked as a reporter for two BBC TV current affairs programmes, 24 Hours and Midweek. We took it for granted that the departmental bosses with their grey suits, grey manners and grey morals took a hand whenever politicians or tycoons bent their ears.
In 1973, I made a film about Robert Maxwell, produced by Tom Bower, who later became famous as the old monster’s biographer.
Maxwell was already known to be a crook, but that did not stop him lobbying the BBC incessantly, to get our film indictment of him softened. Corporation managers buckled almost without resistance. Bower and I were forced to accept substantial changes to make the script more sympathetic to Maxwell — supposedly in the name of fairness.
A newspaper reporter who appeared in the film, and saw to his disgust how it was emasculated, said: ‘The BBC’s idea of fairness is to say: “Okay, perhaps the world isn’t flat, but to be fair, perhaps we should agree that it might be flat some of the time.” ’
That episode reflected the same executive pusillanimity so vividly displayed over Jimmy Savile. We now know from email transcripts, and last night’s unprecedented Panorama film, that Newsnight reporter Liz MacKean wrote to a friend on November 30 last year, saying programme editor Peter Rippon had told her ‘if the bosses are not happy [he] can’t go to the wall on this one’.
As the BBC now admits, this is in direct contradiction of the version of events first given by Rippon. We also know that Director of News, Helen Boaden, warned George Entwistle, now Director-General, on December 2, 2011, that his Christmas tributes to Savile would have to be reconsidered if the Newsnight investigation went ahead. Instead, however, the latter was halted.
Seven years ago, I suffered my own experience of Helen Boaden’s editorial vision. As a guest on Radio 4’s Sunday morning programme, Broadcasting House, I was invited to comment on some Northern Ireland election results, and gave my opinion that it was a sad day for those of us who reported on Ulster for many years to see Ian Paisley’s party on top, when he had played such an evil role in the start of The Troubles.
Some time later, I received a phone call from a BBC lawyer. Paisley was suing in Northern Ireland, he said, and the Corporation wanted me to join it in making a broadcast apology. I laughed and said: ‘That wouldn’t be very convincing when I’ve been using the same words about him in print — even in a book — for almost 40 years.’
The next I heard from the lawyer was that, unless I joined the BBC in its apology, I would be cut loose on my own to deal with Paisley in court. I rang up the Controller of Radio 4 —Helen Boaden. In time-honoured Corporation style, she refused to accept my call.
Bewildered and angry, I rang another BBC executive I knew, and asked where editorial courage and integrity had gone. My friend replied: ‘Helen says you can’t go around calling democratically elected politicians “evil”.’
I next received a call from a BBC lawyer in Belfast, who said he was speaking in a purely personal capacity. He thought the Corporation’s eagerness to surrender to Paisley was despicable, and would like to act for me if I kept fighting.
In the end, however, rather than face the bother and time-wasting, I signed the BBC’s shamefully grovelling statement. An apology was duly broadcast. The Corporation paid Paisley £35,000 of licence-payers’ money in damages, and almost the same again in costs.
It was a dirty little business, which rankles with me still. So I am not surprised to find Helen Boaden once again in a hot seat, with hard questions being asked about what she knew, or did not know, about Newsnight’s suppressed Savile programme.
Such people do not get their jobs because they are courageous or even competent journalists, but instead because they know how to play the corporate game.
BBC’s current affairs and documentary programme-making are today starved of resources, while senior executives draw fat salaries for sustaining a culture whose rottenness now stands exposed.
John Birt, who later became Tony Blair’s familiar, was their role model. You may remember that he became notorious as the deputy director- general who charged his Armani suits to business expenses, and squandered tens of millions on hiring management consultants. I have no knowledge of what was or was not said among the BBC’s top management about Jimmy Savile.
But every one among my own acquaintance who has made programmes for the Corporation assumes they attempted a cover-up, because that is what such people do.
It is not credible for the BBC now to conduct its own inquiries into this episode, even under allegedly independent chairmen. If the Government thought it necessary to appoint Lord Justice Leveson to investigate phone-hacking at News International, it must recognise a far stronger moral imperative to commission a public inquiry into Savile.
The charge that a hugely prominent BBC star was able to commit paedophile offences for decades, in some cases allegedly on Corporation premises, without hindrance from senior executives, is shocking enough.
The allegation that even after Savile’s death, when evidence of his conduct was available, the BBC suppressed the story, can only credibly be investigated by outsiders.
I am a biased witness — but only because I know from personal experience how the Corporation’s top brass go about their business.
Once an inquiry has taken place, a purge will be necessary. The challenge for the Chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, will be to see that the next generation of bosses are better, braver and more talented people than the current regime — but it will be hard to identify suitable candidates in today’s Broadcasting House or TV Centre.
The BBC is a great institution which still does some things very well. But a deadly topweight of managers and consultants has steered it into a quagmire.
The Corporation is dominated by men and women who lack both moral compass and journalistic skills. The Savile scandal has exposed a profound malaise which will take years to cure.