What Lord Patten did and didn’t say to the Commons Committee and what happens next

The media reports on Lord Patten’s appearance at the Culture Select Committee on 27th November understandably focus on his encounter with Philip Davies MP, his revelations about the financial negotiations with George Entwistle and the cost to licence-payers of the various inquiries.

But there were other things that were said, or to be more precise things that were partly said and things that were hinted at.  You might want to read this blog post in conjunction with watching some of the video of the session which is here. In the text I give the approximate timings from the video.

1. What Lord Patten said about Mark Thompson and when Thompson knew about the allegations against Jimmy Savile.

Rarely can a Chairman of the BBC have been so cautious and so restrained in what he said about a man who only ten weeks ago he praised in these terms:

‘His creativity, vision and leadership have made him an outstanding Director-General of the BBC and he will be sorely missed.’

Philip Davies MP put to Lord Patten various dates which appeared in this blog’s list of the ten days when Thompson’s office received information about Savile and the BBC while he was still DG of the BBC (See blogpost ‘A new timeline from the death of Savile to the appointment of Hall’)

Lord Patten did not dispute any of the dates. Nor did he seek to defend Thompson in advance of the Pollard report.

The key part of the exchange between Lord Patten and Philip Davies MP is in this transcript, including the dates from this blog.

What should we conclude from this? At one level Lord Patten is quite properly observing caution in commenting on material which is currently being considered by the Pollard inquiry. (I can confirm The Sunday Times story – followed up by The Daily Star! – that the inquiry have seen all the material I have published).But it is also possible , and I put it no higher than this, that he may be aware of other material from email searches which the BBC has submitted to the inquiry.

What happens next? We may be assuming that this sort of issue will be covered by Nick Pollard. But a report by Ben Webster in The Times today (28 Nov) says that ‘the inquiry will not consider in detail what happened in the 10 months after the Newsnight investigation was cancelled, when BBC executives received multiple warnings that the corporation’s reputation was at risk over a suspected cover-up’ and that Pollard will only publish ‘excerpts of evidence he deems relevant to his conclusions’. If both these forecasts turn out to be correct, emails which only relate to an alleged ‘cover-up’ may not be published.

In contrast to this Lord Patten – who once said he wouldn’t be surprised if there were resignations after Pollard publishes- continues to build expectations of dramatic events. In a speech earlier this week, he said: ‘Once we get the Pollard report, it will,I hope ,be much clearer to the Trust what went wrong and how.  There may well be consequences for some of the individuals involved.  And we will want to make a clear statement about where we think there were management failings – both within the news division itself and, later, in the corporate handling of the crisis’.

Such statements get a very cool even hostile reaction within BBC News which is looking for what they would probably call a ‘properly calibrated’ response to Pollard not one aimed at alleviating outside pressure.

 2. Why did Lord Patten say ‘no’ when he meant ‘yes’?

One of the most cryptic exchanges of the session concerned conversations between the Trust and George Entwistle on the Saturday when he resigned.

Lord Patten was asked whether Entwistle had first offered to resign in the conference call that followed his Today appearance, rather than after it.

Lord Patten said (12.24pm on the video time code):  

“No…except when I say no, I mean yes…The Trust had made it clear that we expected very decisive action to be taken about the Newsnight programme. The sort of action which Tim Davie is taking at the moment, or considering taking.George Entwistle then said he wasn’t sure he would be able to satisfy the Trust and he said something like ‘so there are implications. I may have to talk to the Chairman of the Trust about that if I can’t do it’ – so that I took to be the suggestion he might want to resign.”

Deconstructing this, I take this to mean that members of the Trust wanted Entwistle as DG to sack the people involved in the decision to transmit the Newsnight story which led to the identification of Lord McAlpine. Patten talked of ’the sort of action which Tim Davie is taking at the moment’  which would appear to be the disciplinary proceedings which are underway but he then added an important rider ‘or considering taking’. That rider cannot apply to the disciplinary proceedings themselves because they are already underway .It sounds to me to be a reference to sackings which may follow the proceedings.If that’s right ,and I have had it confirmed by a senior BBC source, then the Trust wanted sackings but Entwistle said ‘ he wasn’t sure he would be able to satisfy them’  and  that contributed to his resignation.

All this would fit with what BBC Trustee Anthony Fry told the Commons Public Accounts Committee on the 22  November: ‘It would be fair to say that the view of the Trust when the director-general left the meeting was that there were serious concerns that the gravity of the situation had been grasped by the director-general and some of his colleagues. The director-general had suggested to some of us that the danger would be over reacting whereas it seemed to me the danger for the BBC would be under reacting’.

We know that the day after Entwistle’s departure, the new acting DG, Tim Davie, did not sack anybody but started a disciplinary process. As another part of what begins to look like a package to show he had ‘got a grip’ he decided that the Director of BBC News, Helen Boaden and her deputy, Steve Mitchell, should ‘step aside’ because of the  confusion about who was in charge of ‘Savile-related’ stories .It was reported that BBC Scotland controller Ken MacQuarrie  had cited as a factor  in  his report on the ‘McAlpine affair’.

We have not yet seen the MacQuarrie report, the Select Committee were told it would be published   soon. When the report is published it will be very interesting to see if MacQuarrie actually recommended the ‘step-aside’ step. There are those in the BBC who believe that he specifically did not and that he also may not have said confusion about managerial responsibility was one of the causes of the Newsnight error.

It is quite noticeable that the BBC press statement about the MacQuarrie report says that he has ‘reported his findings’ and, a sentence later, that ‘the following actions have been announced’. It doesn’t say that as a result of his findings the following actions have been announced.

At the time BBC Business Editor, Robert Peston, wrote in his blog: ‘I have learned that lawyers acting for Ms Boaden and Mr Mitchell have informed Mr Davie that they are quite capable of running BBC News, even with the uncertainty created by the Pollard inquiry. Peston said that he had consulted BBC colleagues and ‘ many said they believed Ms Boaden and Mr Mitchell ought to be put firmly back in charge of news, because of the perception that they would never have permitted the latest child abuse story to have run on Newsnight’

So whether MacQuarrie recommended the ‘step-aside’ or not, this would have been a tough call for the new acting DG Tim Davie and may even have affected whether he got the interim job at all. Effectively he was having to choose between the Trustees who were looking for decisive action and the many supporters of Boaden and Mitchell inside the Corporation who thought such a step would not only be unfair on them but the wrong thing to do for the BBC.

What happens next? We await the full MacQuarrie report and more importantly the decisions at the end of the disciplinary proceedings. Inevitably people at the BBC are wondering who will make the decision about any sanctions against individuals. Presumably that is a matter for management in the form of the acting DG, Tim Davie, rather than the Trust and Lord Patten. And what role,if any, will the new DG, Tony Hall, have in advance of taking up the post in March?

3. Lord Patten and his ‘cuttings’.

Lord Patten was asked about the number of newspaper reports earlier this year which should have alerted him and Mark Thompson to the allegations about Savile’s assaults on under-age girls on BBC premises. He repeated rather wearily that he had not seen them.

For those who may think that every morning Lord Patten,and his former Director-General Mark Thompson , had to wade through pages and pages of photocopied articles in a bundle of press cuttings, I bring news. I have seen the daily press cuttings service which is emailed to BBC executives and Trustees each morning and it is very similar to the format which was used by Ofcom when I worked there and, I suspect, by many organisations.

The daily BBC email has ten headings :


When you click on each section BBC executives and Trustees are offered one or two sentence summaries of each news story in that section.

The BBC cuttings service for 8January this year contained this summary of a Sunday Mirror story in the ‘BBC Corporate and Key programmes’ section:

‘Newsnight reportedly launched an investigation into Sir Jimmy Savile’s private life in the days after his death in October but were ordered to scrap the report by senior BBC executives. BBC1, BBC2, BBC News
Newsnight probe into sex claims against national treasure Sir Jimmy axed by BBC bosses,Sunday Mirror,8-Jan-2012, page 9

Anybody receiving the email could click on the underlined section and be taken through to the story.

So this was not a story hidden away at the bottom of a pile of cuttings, it was just one of eleven stories in a key section of the electronic cuttings. Summaries of other stories about Savile and the BBC were similarly distributed to BBC executives and Trustees on other dates.

What happens next? We wait to see if the Pollard Inquiry is able to say anything about the events which followed the decision not to transmit the Savile story on Newsnight.

Whether the Pollard report does or doesn’t it is clear to me that there is more to come out about those events.

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