The story in The Sunday Times (2.12.12) headlined ‘New evidence links BBC chief to Savile warnings’ is a major development in the saga of who at the BBC knew what about Jimmy Savile when.
The New York Post is running the story under the headline A ‘smoking gun‘. Unlike the Sunday Times article the New York Post story is not behind a pay wall.
Emails released by the BBC under Freedom of Information laws to freelance Miles Goslett show for the first time that an email which should have alerted the then Director-General, Mark Thompson, to the allegations against Savile was forwarded directly to him not just once but twice and this happened seven months before he left the corporation on his way to The New York Times.
In The Sunday Times story I am quoted as saying that ‘It is clear from the evidence released by the BBC that two of Mark Thompson’s closest staff forwarded to him an important email about an article which appeared in The Oldie magazine in February. If he read the email properly, and read The Oldie article, his statement to an MP on October 23 in which he said he never heard any allegation about Savile during his director- generalship is untrue. And if he never read it this has turned out to be a serious oversight’.
Here’s why I believe that.
The email trail released by the BBC has been posted on The Sunday Times website. The first released email comes from a journalist in The Telegraph Group – his or her name has been deleted or ‘redacted’ by the BBC – and was sent on 8 February 2012 to ‘Mark Thompson-and-PA’. This is the kind of email address used by companies to allow those working with executives to read incoming emails sent to the executives. Depending on how exactly the email account is set up the executive may or may not see the emails as they arrive.
The journalist sending the email writes: ‘Dear Mark. Sorry to bother you again, but is there any truth in the story in The Oldie that you were aware of the Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile and Duncroft School? Best, thanks.’
The significance of The Oldie story was that it was about allegations against Savile of offences against under-age girls from Duncroft school on BBC premises.
Nine minutes later somebody at the BBC – again the names have been redacted by the BBC in the released version – sends somebody else in the BBC an email saying ‘This should be forwarded to Paul and press office which you’ve probably already done’.
Paul Mylrea was Mark Thompson’s Director of Communications.
We don’t know the identity of the sender or the receiver but from other information sent to Miles Goslett by the BBC and from the circumstances it is reasonable to assume this is between two people working in Mark Thompson’s office.
Ten minutes later the receiver replies to the sender:
‘Hi-yes. I’ve sent it to Paul and Mark. Will send to press office if Paul doesn’t get back to me within the next hour’. It is signed R.
We assume that the ‘Mark’ is Mark Thompson but the BBC, for some reason, has not released the email which R sent to ‘Mark’ so we don’t know what R said in his or her covering note to Mark.
We do know that R said something because the BBC have taken the trouble to redact it from Paul Mylrea’s reply. In that email Mylrea simply writes: ‘passing this on to Press Office’.
The most important thing about this particular email is that Paul Mylrea copies in an email account ‘zzMarkzzThompson-DG’ which I know to have been used by Mark Thompson personally while he was at the BBC. It is also important to confirm that the email contains the original inquiry from the journalist: ‘Dear Mark. Sorry to bother you again, but is there any truth in the story in The Oldie that you were aware of the Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile and Duncroft School?
The bottom line in this email chain is that we can see one of Mark Thompson’s staff saying ‘I’ve sent it to Mark’ an email about Savile and we can see another actually sending it to him.
The Sunday Times has obtained a second chain of BBC emails between April and June of this year, showing that Thompson’s office was also warned about an FoI request about Savile made by freelance journalist Miles Goslett. There is no evidence to suggest this second email trail was copied to Thompson personally.
Mark Thompson’s spokesman has issued a statement to The Sunday Times:
“The director-general’s [DG] office routinely passed queries from journalists to the BBC press office, and queries about freedom of information requests to the FoI team without alerting or involving the DG. That is what happened in these cases.He was not made aware of the allegations involving Jimmy Savile while he was in office at the BBC.”
This misses the point. Undoubtedly Mark Thompson’s office routinely passed queries from journalists to the BBC press office, But what happened on this occasion is that they also took the trouble to make sure he knew of what amounted to an alert about a story he may have missed.
This is an appropriate moment to remind ourselves what Mark Thompson said in his letter written to Rob Wilson MP on 23 October 2012:
‘You quote me as saying: “During my time as director general of the BBC, I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile.” Both of these statements are true to the very best of my knowledge’.
There are bound to be those who are surprised by the release of these new emails at this particular time. The BBC have sent Miles Goslett a long letter explaining why this information was initially not released but has now been sent to him. Having read the letter, it raises as many questions as it answers.
The BBC policy on releasing material under FOI is set out in a section of its website . The ‘Excluded’ section includes:
‘The Act recognises the different position of the BBC….by providing that it covers information “held for purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature”. This means that the Act does not apply to material held for the purposes of creating the BBC’s output (TV, radio, online etc), or material which supports and is closely associated with these creative activities’.
The BBC’s FOI experts have to decide whether applications fall within this exception, but their decision can be challenged by applicants. The internal email chain shows that the BBC originally rejected Goslett’s FOI application as ‘OOS’ (out of scope) because it involved a piece of BBC journalism, Newsnight. However at least one member of the FOI team is seen to suggest internally that this may not apply to all his list of questions and that there may be a case for revealing some of what he asked for. Nothing seems to have come of it at this point.
When Goslett attempted to engage the BBC FOI team in a dialogue about the principle of what could be released under FOI, a released internal BBC email shows one member of their FOI team telling another: ‘Of course I am not going to talk to him on the phone. We only clarified that we were talking about BBC News to try to stop him making mischief’.
That was then (20 May 2012) and this is now, and the emails, or at least most of them, have finally been released.
Looking back a week, those who read my post after Lord Patten’s appearance at the Commons Culture Committee may remember that I highlighted his reluctance to support Mark Thompson’s position. I also wondered if he had seen emails which, we assume, the BBC had sent to the Pollard inquiry but had not yet been released.
Which brings us to the Pollard inquiry itself. We still don’t know if the issues raised by the released emails fall within Nick Pollard’s terms of reference.
If it is judged that they don’t then an intriguing situation will arise.
Effectively there will have been an expensive inquiry into what happened before the tributes to Savile went out, and it is possible that this will find there was not undue pressure on the Editor of Newsnight.
But there will not have been an inquiry into what exactly senior BBC executives did after the tributes went out as the allegations continued to grow that they had lauded a paedophile.
There is also growing unhappiness in BBC News about the difference between the approach of the Pollard Inquiry into ‘Savile’ and that of the internal disciplinary procedures for those involved in the ‘McAlpine’ report on Newsnight. Of course the two are inevitably different. One is being conducted under formal Inquiry Rules, the other under an internal disciplinary code. The Pollard inquiry therefore has a more adversarial style of questioning by the QC –think Robert Jay QC at Leveson on one of his more sceptical days. Depending on the individual QC such a style can appear as ‘bullying’ to witnesses.
At the ‘Savile’ inquiry interviews can take days, but at the ‘McAlpine’ hearing they normally last under an hour.
Among the News folk this had added to a growing belief that the Pollard inquiry has ended up being out of proportion to the original issue-what they see a decision by one Editor. Why, they wonder, is a good story (Savile) missed so much more significant than a bad story (McAlpine) transmitted.Now they will be interested to see if decisions made by much more senior executives than the Editor of Newsnight are subject to the same scrutiny.
Meanwhile The New York Observer reports that Mark Thompson has postponed two open meetings he was scheduled to hold with his staff at The New York Times. The Observer publishes an email in which Thompson says that the ‘Town Hall’ meetings that were to have happened on December 17 and 18 will now be held sometime in January. These meetings were to have been, ‘a chance for as many people as possible to see me face to face and for us to begin a conversation about the future direction of this great news organization’.
Thompson says he chose December 17 and 18 ‘because I expected them to come after the publication of Nick Pollard’s enquiry into the BBC’s handling of the Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile. I know that there’s been considerable – and quite understandable – interest in this topic inside as well as outside The Times. I wanted to address questions about it at the Town Halls once the enquiry was out and all the facts were known.
‘It now turns out that Nick Pollard will not submit his report at the end of November as originally planned but some weeks later. As a result, I believe it makes sense to move the Town Halls to early in the new year. By then, anyone who is interested can look at the report and I can address their questions on the basis of the facts’.
The New York Observer reporter comments: ‘Looks like 2013 will be off to an interesting start.’