I was first in the queue for a seat at the grilling of the BBC Director General over Jimmy Savile on Tuesday. God knows why George Entwhistle volunteered for the ordeal that befell him because, having set up two inquiries, he should have been lying low not exposing himself to MPs who wanted quick answers or an easy headline.
What we got was a very inexperienced DG caught in the headlights and choosing to hang out one of his senior programme editors to dry. If I was Peter Rippon, now “standing aside” from the editorship of Newsnight, I would take the transcript of the Culture Select Committee report to an employment tribunal if he loses his job permanently.
Entwhistle expressed his embarrassment and regret that Rippon’s blog on why he had spiked the Savile investigation was not accurate. He said Rippon’s reasons for not transmitting the report were not defensible. He (Entwhistle) would have transmitted it. He made it clear that he had suspended Rippon rather than the editor having volunteered to “stand aside”.
If your boss went on national media and treated you in the same way, how would you feel? The DG laid down his friend for his life big time.
The pain Rippon must be feeling at his treatment by Entwhistle must only be exceeded by his angst that he did not transmit the report on Savile’s vile behaviour. The fact that ITV scooped the BBC on their own story is a source of huge frustration throughout the corporation and explains the furious civil war that has now broken out.
Rippon is being accused of being sat on by people higher up the BBC chain of command or of lacking the courage to back his journalists. So let’s hold on a minute and reflect that we are all operating with the help of hindsight. A year ago Entwhistle, as Head of BBC Vision, had no qualms in making tribute programmes on Savile a centrepiece of his Christmas schedule. Although rumours and allegations about Savile had been around for years, Entwhistle must have felt them so insignificant that a tribute to Savile’s talent and charity work was entirely appropriate.
It reminds us that just a year ago Savile was a national treasure and the people of Leeds lined the streets as his coffin passed.
It was against this background that reporter Liz Mackean and producer Meirion Jones were preparing to bring Savile’s reputation crashing down. So, although Rippon allowed the production to get to an advanced stage, he must have looked at the state of opinion as it was then. Savile had just died amid public acclaim and the BBC was planning a Christmas celebration of the dead star. He was entitled to take a deep breath before giving the final go ahead.
Two more factors may have affected his decision. One was the huge responsibility that is put on individual programme editors in the BBC. They can talk to colleagues, but it is their call. It is a protection against pressure coming down from above, but it is an awesome individual responsibility in the end.
The other factor that might have weighed on his mind is the Trafigura affair. Peter Rippon was the editor of Newsnight in December 2009 when the BBC withdrew an allegation that the company’s dumping of hazardous waste in the Ivory Coast was directly responsible for deaths there. The report was the work of Meirion Jones and Liz Mackean. The pair rightly went on to win a major award for investigative reporting but reports suggest the BBC faced a bill of £3m if they had fought Trafigura in court.
The BBC is once again at the mercy of those who are always looking for reasons to bring it down. It has not handled this matter well and may well face further embarrassing revelations. But at the end of it all let’s remember that the person who bears ultimate responsibility for this is not George Entwhistle or Peter Rippon, but Jimmy Savile.