LONDON – The BBC did not deliberately cover up sex-abuse allegations against one of its most famous hosts in order to go ahead with planned tribute shows to him after his death, but its decision to drop a news investigation into the accusations was “seriously flawed,” a highly anticipated report has found.
After the allegations of serial sexual abuse of children by Jimmy Savile came to light on a rival broadcaster, the BBC’s management mounted a confused, inept and completely inadequate response that showed considerable internal distrust and that eventually cost the job of its new director general, said the report, released Wednesday. High-ranking editors have been suspended.
The chain of events represents the most serious crisis in recent memory to hit the BBC, one of the world’s biggest media brands, and has cost it some measure of public confidence in its journalism, said the report’s author, Nick Pollard.
But “I don’t see any reason why that shouldn’t come back, and probably as strongly as ever,” he added. “I think there’s no fundamental undermining of BBC journalism, and any fall in that [confidence] is temporary.”
Pollard, a prominent former television news executive, was commissioned by the BBC to conduct an independent inquiry into why the corporation chose to kill an investigation into Savile by its program “Newsnight” that was on track to be aired in late 2011.
Savile, an eccentric figure who wore track suits and long hair, had died a few months earlier after many years as a children’s television host at the BBC. Other divisions of the broadcasting corporation were planning lavish holiday tributes to him.
Those tributes went ahead, while the “Newsnight” program was shelved. But earlier this year, a rival network broadcast its own investigation of Savile, who is now suspected by police of having been a predatory pedophile responsible for molesting or raping dozens of young girls, some of them on BBC premises.
Pollard’s report, based on interviews and a review of more than 10,000 emails and other documents, concluded that there had not been any undue pressure from senior management to pull the “Newsnight” investigation in order to protect the BBC’s reputation or to continue with the tribute shows.
“Newsnight” editor Peter Rippon made an honest but wrong assessment that the evidence in the investigation was not strong enough, the report found.
“The ‘Newsnight’ investigators got the story right,” Pollard said. “The decision by their editor to drop the investigation was clearly flawed and the way it was taken was wrong, but I believe it was done in good faith. It was not done to protect the Savile tribute programs.”
However, once the accusations surfaced on rival network ITV and questions began to be raised about the aborted “Newsnight” program, the BBC responded with breathtaking incompetence, the report said in a particularly damning finding.
Editors worked on partial information, executives did not cooperate with one another and the entire management chain suffered “a complete breakdown in communication,” Pollard said.
As a result of Pollard’s report, the deputy director of the BBC’s news operation, Stephen Mitchell, resigned Wednesday. The editorial team of “Newsnight” is to be replaced. Chris Patten, the head of the BBC Trust, said the corporation accepted Pollard’s criticisms and recommendations on better management and oversight unreservedly.
For the record, 11:42 a.m. Dec. 19: An early version of this post incorrectly stated that the BBC report was released and Stephen Mitchell resigned on Tuesday. Both events occurred Wednesday.