behind the news

BBC in crisis over a shelved pedophile investigation

Newsnight accused of a coverup after they dropped the case
October 23, 2012

When it emerged, a year after his death, that popular UK television personality Jimmy Saville may have molested hundreds of girls, his headstone was torn down and plaques placed in his honor around the country were defaced and then removed. Now the controversy has spread to Savile’s former employer, the BBC, since it emerged last week that an investigation into the molestation allegations for the current affairs show Newsnight was shelved last year without explanation, prompting accusations of a coverup. Monday night another BBC current affairs program, Panorama, aired interviews with BBC staff that bring to light the many ways the case was mishandled. The show was unavailable to American audiences, but highlights are available here.

“I was sure the story would come out one way or another,” Newsnight producer Meirion Jones told Panorama reporters in a teaser clip posted on the Guardian’s website yesterday, “and if it did the BBC would be accused of a coverup.”

The one-hour show about the segment’s cancellation centers on Newsnight editor Peter Rippon, who has been asked to resign pending an independent inquiry (reports say he is still on full pay). Rippon responded with a blogpost, published on the BBC when the story broke on October 2. The post was later found to contain several inaccuracies including the assertion that all the women who came forward to speak to Newsnight had also given evidence to the police, which was untrue. Rippon stands by his word that the story was shelved for “editorial reasons”. After the Newsnight investigation ceased at the end of November 2011, a rival channel broke the news.

The scandal breaks just a year since the death of Jimmy Savile in October 2011. After his death, many media outlets aired tributes to the popular BBC presenter of Jim’ll Fix It, which granted wishes to children, and Top Of The Pops, a chart music program. But according to evidence that surfaced in an ITV documentary aired in September, the star allegedly molested many as 200 young girls.

This is the the first, huge test of George Entwistle’s leadership. On Tuesday, he was ambushed by reporters outside the Houses of Parliament after a several hours talking through the mistakes made at the BBC with parliamentarians on the government’s culture committee.

Entwistle took the top post of director general at the BBC in July. Talking to BBC News on Monday, Entwistle declined to comment on the Panorama episode, but emphasized that two independent inquiries have already been set up to look into the accusations against Savile and the decision to shelve the Newsnight investigation.

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Hazel Sheffield is a journalist and filmmaker based in London. She is a former CJR fellow and business editor of the Independent.