Along with several other interested parties, I have spent the afternoon digesting the Pollard report on whether the Newsnight ‘Savile’ programme was pulled from the transmission schedule because of ‘pressure from above’ or not.
Watching Twitter on the subject, the phrase that has been lept on with glee has been that Peter Rippon’s decision not to permit transmission was ‘seriously flawed’. What seems to be missing from any of these tweets is the follow up that this was ‘done in good faith’ and NOT ‘for inappropriate reasons’.
As a result of that decision ’in good faith’, the senior management at the BBC seem to have gone into ‘headless chicken mode’, often making decisions on flawed information, and generally more concerned with watching their own back than with sharing information and being transparent.
I am not concerned with the bulk of the report dealing with the failings of the BBC to deal with the outcome of that decision. I shall leave that to others.
Now that it has been decided that Peter Rippon didn’t make his decision as a result of management pressure to protect the reputation of a BBC star, I am concerned with why that decision was made.
Peter Rippon could only act on the information he was given by his investigative team. His own view was:
‘The extent to which we had to rely on the testimony from [[R1]] was stark. She was the only victim in vision we had and would be the face of our allegations and I remained concerned about how well her testimony would stand up to the scrutiny it would get. I was also concerned with the way we had collected the additional evidence from other victims and witnesses, The women were to remain anonymous. The interviews had all been done on the telephone. Some of them were done by a junior researcher who was with us on work experience who I had never worked with. I was also concerned that the evidence could potentially be undermined because some of the women had already discussed the claims amongst themselves via a social networking site. In my personal experience, the strongest testimony from victims of alleged child sexual abuse has to be collected individually, face to face, on neutral territory, with trained interviewers used to not asking leading questions. This was a long way from what we had done.
For these reasons I emailed Meirion on 30th November saying I wanted to pursue the CPS angle on the story to its end before finally deciding on publishing…’.
Rippon was right to be concerned at relying on the testimony from the one woman they had on film, for Meirion Jones own view of the women was:
In another e-mail to Mr Williams-Thomas, on 22 November, Mr Jones offered some candid observations about the ex Duncroft residents. He said that while ‘most’ were intelligent, ‘most’ were also ‘emotionally damaged’ with a ‘criminal background’ as well as being ‘suspicious… extremely manipulative [and] difficult to deal with’.
In his evidence to Pollard Mr Jones rather played down this description of the residents, although it was obviously his private view of his ‘witnesses” expressed as he thought at the time. However, another of the women had vouchsafed the information that there had been a 2007 investigation into these allegations which had been dropped ‘because Savile was old and infirm’. She claimed to be in possession of a letter proving this. That information obviously significantly strengthened the extent to which Rippon felt that he could rely on the ‘compelling testimony’ from the one witness they had on film and the telephone conversations via a junior employee on work experience – he was indeed happy at that point for the investigation to continue.
We will never know who the author of that forged letter was. Fiona was the last person known to have handled it, before handing it to a reporter from the Daily Mail, who quickly established that it was a crude forgery – however, crucially she never did give it to the Newsnight team. That forged letter has subsequently become the crux of the breakdown of trust between Peter Rippon and the investigative team headed by Meirion Jones.
On 25 November Mr Williams-Thomas told Mr Jones that Surrey Police had confirmed to him, off the record, that they had indeed investigated Savile. That was a big step forward. First, it was confirmation that the police had taken the allegations seriously enough to mount an investigation. Second, it demonstrated that those residents who said they had been spoken to by the police had indeed done so. It reinforced their credibility.
Mr Jones immediately passed the news on to Mr Rippon: ‘Off the record Surrey Police have now confirmed that they did investigate Jimmy Savile about sexual abuse of minors and that they interviewed the girls from Duncroft as part of that inquiry. The Head of the Paedophile unit is now going to dig out the files and hopefully tell us more on Monday.’
Rippon was nervous about putting the BBCs reputation on the line on the strength of the uncorroborated evidence he had seen/heard so far, and when it appeared that there was no corroboration of the story that had been pitched to him – i.e. that the women had been let down by an unsatisfactory police investigation abandoned for the farcical reason that Savile was ‘too old and inform’ he withdrew his support for the transmission.
Rippon asked Meirion in an e-mail dated 5:26pm on 7 December:
‘What is the latest….did the CPS get back?…There is a limit to how much time it is sensible to continue chasing this.’
Meirion Jones replied:
… still waiting for CPS…As you know I already think story is strong enough – and danger of not running it is substantial damage to BBC reputation – but no point having that discussion until I have final word from CPS.
Sadly, as those of us who have followed this story closely have known all along, that information was incorrect. The letter purporting to come from Surrey Police conveying this information was a forgery, and in fact the Surrey Police investigation had been dropped due to lack of evidence.
‘Following an investigation by [Surrey] Police, the CPS reviewing lawyer advised the police that no further action should be taken due to lack of evidence’. The statement added: ‘As this is the case, it would not be correct to say that his age and frailty was the reason for no further action being taken’.
I think it is clear that, at this stage, Mr Rippon would have broadcast the story if there was clear confirmation that the CPS had dropped the case against Savile because of his age. That could either have come through the appearance of the ‘old and infirm’ letter or by the CPS confirming that fact themselves. If that had happened I do not think Mr Rippon would have been able to resist the pressure to broadcast. Indeed, the story would have passed the threshold that he himself had set so he would have had no reason to oppose it, although he clearly had considerable other doubts too.
That Meirion was placing great store on the ‘old and infirm angle’ himself is shown by his draft for the transmission.
On 27 November Mr Jones drafted a version of the ‘cue’, the lead-in that would be read by the presenter just before the filmed story was played out on the programme. This was:
‘When Sir Jimmy Savile died in October, Prince Charles led the tributes to a national treasure. But there was a darker side to the star of Jim’ll Fix it. Newsnight has learnt that he was investigated by police for sexual assaults on minors but the crown prosecution service decided in 2009? that he was too old and infirm to face trial. Now some of the girls who say they were assaulted by him in the 1970s when they were 13, 14 and 15 have talked to Newsnight. They say Savile was an evil man who should rot in hell and that his charity work gave him cover to get young girls. They even claim that some of the abuse took place after BBC recordings and involved other celebrity paedophiles who appeared on Savile’s shows such as Gary Glitter.
Liz Mackean investigates …
Early in Mr Jones’ draft was a quote from an interview with Mr Williams-Thomas (although the interview had not yet been recorded it was clear what line it was anticipated he was going to take) in which he was expected to say ‘but in 2009 the CPS decided that Savile was too old and infirm to face a trial and dropped the case – I have to say I don’t think that is acceptable – and why was it all hushed up?’ Mr Jones accepted that this story, with the CPS angle prominent near the start and talking of ‘hushing up’ the abuse, was the story he was hoping to put out.
I have always maintained that what has happened to the BBC in the past few months were as a direct result of Meirion ‘throwing his toys out of his pram’ when he wasn’t allowed to run with a story that would have directly impacted on his elderly aunt with whom he no longer enjoyed good relations. Not that Meirion had had the good manners to either inform his Aunt that he was investigating a story in which she would have been an obvious interviewee, or even told his bosses at the BBC that he had a personal and emotional involvement in this story.
Two days later, on 23 November, Ms Boaden spoke with Mr Mitchell. She was not aware at the time that Mr Jones’s aunt was the Head of Duncroft, nor that he had been considering the story for some time while Savile was alive. She said that she would have been ‘quite concerned’ about such a personal involvement or emotional connection.
From this point on, relations between Meirion Jones and his executive editor appear to have totally collapsed.
There was a further factor involved too. It is clear to me that the relationship between Mr Rippon and his investigation team had all but broken down. I accept that there were not screaming matches and open rows but, as it became obvious that the story was not going to run, an element of personal antagonism crept in. It comes across clearly in the personal e-mails sent by Mr Jones and Ms MacKean to their friends and in the exasperated way Mr Rippon describes, in particular, Mr Jones’s methods of working. He thought Mr Jones was over-selling the story, literally ‘like a salesman’ he told us, and was prematurely passing details of the investigation to other parts of the news department to try to build up an assumption that the story was going to go ahead.
Stories started to appear in the press reflecting Meiron’s view that ‘his’ programme had been abandoned because of managerial pressure to protect Savile’s reputation, rather than his Editor’s feeling that the story needed more corroboration.
The complete distrust of Mr Jones which I referred to above extended to the News PR team. Ms Deller and Mr Feeny were, by this stage, evidently concerned about the continuing leaking of material to the media, of which they assumed Mr Jones to be the source. The pair had taken the view that this should lead to disciplinary action against Mr Jones and even his dismissal. In an email exchange later that night, after Ms Deller learned of Mr Jones’s family connection to Duncroft, Ms Deller said to Mr Rippon, Mr Mitchell and Mr Feeny: ‘No excuse. No more discussions with him’, suggesting ’a discreet conversation with HR to establish options.’
Mr Mitchell and Ms Boaden were both at pains to point out that the fact that Mr Jones was considered to be inclined to leak did not mean that he was persona non grata within BBC News. Throughout this period he was still being trusted to, as Ms Boaden put it ‘do some journalism’.However, Ms Boaden did suggest that one reason why nobody sat down with Mr Jones to get his version of the underlying facts was that by this point he was ‘regarded as untrustworthy’. Another reason, Ms Boaden suggested, was that Mr Jones would not be the right person to go to:
‘… you have to decide what you think the facts are that you want to explore… So the allegation is a cover-up of a Newsnight investigation. So you wouldn’t necessarily go to Meirion Jones to get the facts on that, since it is suspected that Meirion is the person who has decided it is a cover up’.”
What more can be said? One man’s overweening ego and hysteria at not being able to use the Newsnight programme as a vehicle to vent his private grievances? Somebody’s desire to over egg the pudding by forging a letter? Between them they have engineered the downfall of the BBC’s Director General, The Deputy Director of BBC News Stephen Mitchell, lost the trust of the British public – such as it was – in the investigative integrity of the BBC, cost the BBC licence payers some £2 million just to get the facts straight, and most damaging of all, have put back the quiet patient work of the real police in investigating historic cases of child abuse by years.
That is the real tragedy – all this grandstanding, and out there, tonight, some poor kid is getting unwanted ‘attention’ from a ‘friend’ of his Mother’s. Do you imagine any of these people actually care about that kid?