It appears that the Newsnight sagas (the non-coverage of the guilty Savile and the coverage of the innocent McAlpine) are coming to a climax and a conclusion.
Here’s a ten point Q and A to help bring you up to speed and prepare you for what’s next.I should stress that it is all done without having seen or heard a word of what’s going to be published.
1.What exactly is going on at the moment?
The Pollard inquiry into the BBC’s handling of the Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile is being conducted under the ‘Inquiry Rules 2006’. Rule 13 obliges an inquiry to give those it intends to criticise a right to reply before publication.Letters have been sent out to the people in that category and they have been replying.
Separately the BBC’s internal disciplinary procedure into what, for simplicity, we will call ‘McAlpine’ (not forgetting that the man himself was entirely innocent) has been completed subject to any appeals. The McQuarrie report into the events that led up to that transmission is expected to be released in full for the first time.
2.What is the timescale?
The BBC would like to publish everything at the same time and it would prefer to do that on Wednesday 19th December. To achieve that two things have to happen.
First of all the Pollard Inquiry,which is a separate entity from the BBC,has to complete the processes required by Rule 13 and that means exhausting the legal options open to anybody who is criticised. The time it is taking to do this suggests that at least one person is not happy and is challenging the draft criticisms. If you are interested in what happens in a Rule 13 process it is worth a quick look at what the BBC itself did when it saw drafts of what lord Hutton was going to say about it back in 2004. The paperwork is here.
Secondly the BBC will have to decide what to do to follow up the conclusions of the Pollard Review and specifically what to do with anybody criticised by Pollard who still works there. They will have to do this in the context of whatever their internal disciplinary procedure has decided should happen to those it cross-examined. This won’t be easy and may also take time.
My conclusion is that it is not safe to predict with confidence when we will know the outcome.
3.What exactly are Nick Pollard’s terms of reference?
Here’s what the BBC has said about the review:
‘The Pollard Review will seek to establish whether there were any failings in the BBC’s management of the Newsnight investigation relating to allegations of sexual abuse of children by Jimmy Savile, including the broadcast of tribute programmes on the BBC. The review will also look at the BBC’s handling of material that might have been of interest to the police or relevant authorities’.
4.What does the BBC most want to come out of the review?
The BBC will hope that Pollard will say that there is no evidence that corporate pressure was applied to the Editor of Newsnight,Peter Rippon, to drop the programme’s investigation into Jimmy Savile. In fact nobody has ever said there was evidence of this although people have undoubtedly wondered if Pollard would find any in the internal emails which have disclosed to him or during the cross-examination of BBC witnesses by his QC. Of course it could have been that Rippon felt under pressure even if nobody overtly applied it .
The case for the editorial purity of Rippon’s decision is best put in an article in the British Journalism Review by the former Editor of the Today programme,Kevin Marsh. Intriguingly he says ‘Rippon recalls’ such internal tensions as producer Meirion Jones seeming ‘much less confident about the strength and reliability of Karin Ward’s testimony than (reporter Lis) MacKean’ and ‘he recalls’, too, that ‘he was unhappy that the corroborating witnesses and victims had been in contact with one another for many years previously; nor was he happy about the way they’d been questioned. And there was, as yet, no third-party evidence’.
Although George Entwistle gave MPs his hindsight view that Peter Rippon should have run an item about Savile I would be surprised if Nick Pollard ,although an experienced former editor,wants to be seen second-guessing Rippon’s editorial decision. But that’s not to say that he won’t comment on what the BBC did and didn’t do next,such as when exactly did they tell the police.
5.Who looks most at risk of criticism?
The most clear cut issue looks like being Peter Rippon’s blog and how it was so wrong for so long. Rippon must obviously take primary responsibility as the author but it looks as if responsibility for the delay in correcting it is to be shared.Last week the Times ran a story which said that the day after the blog was published Rippon told his bosses there were mistakes in it. In the Savile timeline on this blog we had already reported that the day after publication Liz McKean and Meirion Jones emailed Rippon and Steve Mitchell (Deputy Director of BBC News) pointing out the blog was wrong. Now ‘a source close to Mr Rippon’ is quoted in the Times saying that he told Steve Mitchell and the BBC press office that Mr Jones and Ms McKean had informed him of errors in his blog. The source is quoted as saying that: “There was no urgency about correcting it. There seems to have been a feeling that if they corrected it they might have to go back and correct it again.”
This approach will surprise those at the top of the BBC and the BBC Trust because they relied on Rippon’s blog as the definitive,in fact the only, BBC statement on the matter at the time.This may explain why inside the BBC there is a feeling that on the available evidence Rippon and Mitchell have most to fear from the inquiry.
In the Sunday Times Miles Goslett reports that Mitchell ‘one of the BBC’s most senior news executives is set to bear some of the heaviest criticism from the inquiry’. He also says ‘there is speculation at the BBC that Mitchell, 63, deputy director of news, will leave the corporation’.
Inside BBC News there is considerable sympathy for Mitchell who is regarded as a decent, hard-working, long-serving (38 years) stalwart of BBC News. His supporters are hoping for some elegant solution,especially given that Mitchell is already past the BBC retirement age.
6.What about the decision to go ahead with the tributes to Savile?
If the Pollard review decides that this issue is within its terms of reference then it seems an open and shut case that that tributes were broadcast despite the BBC having prima facie evidence from its own journalists that Savile abused under-age girls on its premises. The Newsnight team’s findings may not have satisfied their editor’s criteria of revealing an institutional failure but they were surely enough to have given executives cause to think again about transmission.Thats if they knew. Those who might have made that link can probably be divided between the inactives (those who should have done the telling) and the incurious (those who should have done the asking).George Entwistle cannot be immune from criticism even though he’s left. The BBC still has the opportunity to claw back some of the payoff.
7.Will anybody be sacked?
There will inevitably be a read-across of any convictions and sentences from the two separate processes. The legally-based independent review into the non-coverage of the guilty Savile and the more informal internal procedure into the coverage of the innocent McAlpine are very different beasts. But that won’t stop people comparing their conclusions and what the BBC decided to do about the people. Inevitably the talk inside the BBC is whether those people decisions will be taken by the DG (either solely by the acting one,Tim Davie,or with a little help from the next one,Tony Hall) or by the Chairman, Lord Patten,and the Trustees.The internal betting is that if it were left to Davie he would prefer no sackings and that time-honoured solutions such as moves sideways could be deployed. But those with an eye on public opinion may be pressing for more. Remember the BBC Trust minutes record that the Trustees ‘urged the Director-General to take decisive, radical and rapid action in the light of the MacQuarrie report’ over McAlpine.The minutes also hint that the Trustees were asking for more than George Entwistle was willing to give.So this is a big moment for the Chairman.
8. Any other issues we should look out for?
Nick Pollard will have had to decide whether anybody in the management should be blamed for any misleading statements about the nature of the Newsnight investigation into Savile. Readers of our timeline will already have noticed the changing BBC position on what the investigation ‘was about’ and ‘what it started as’.
9. What about Mark Thompson and what he knew when?
This issue may not be within the terms of reference but as he was interviewed by the Pollard team it would be interesting to know if what Mark Thompson told Pollard is the same as what he originally told MP Rob Wilson. Last week the London Evening Standard reported that Mr Wilson had recently written to Mark Thompson’s new employer, the New York Times, but the paper had not replied.
10 Any complete surprises?
So far we have used Donald Rumsfeld’s invaluable analytical tool of ‘known knowns’ and ‘known unknowns’, but I wouldn’t rule out some ‘unknown unknowns’ coming to light amidst that thicket of internal emails,statements and cross-examinations.