The BBC's managers thought they could kill the Savile sex abuse story. Now it is coming back to haunt them
Put yourself in the place of Peter Rippon. The editor of Newsnight knew in December 2011 that his journalists had not only done a good job, but an extraordinarily difficult job. Anyone who has tried to help a victim of rape knows that on-the-record testimony is hard to come by. Women, and indeed men, hide their humiliation. They fear that others will not believe them, or if they do, will think them sluts, who have no one to blame but themselves. In the worst circumstances, they do blame themselves.
Despite the obstacles, Liz Mac-Kean and her producer Meirion Jones tracked down ten abused women and persuaded them to talk. Their allegations were sensational. Jimmy Savile, BBC disc jockey and children’s television star, was a child abuser and had been for decades. Savile had died in October 2011, and there was no risk of England’s libel laws performing their customary role as censor for the wealthy. The risk of embarrassing Rippon’s superiors, however, was great. Middle manager spoke unto upper-middle manager. Word of the investigation reached George Entwistle, who then bore the absurd title of “Director of BBC Vision”. The visionary director was preparing to broadcast a hagiographic documentary that praised Savile’s charitable work and love of children.
Entwistle, now the BBC’s director general, was very careful indeed to say that no one told him why Newsnight was investigating Savile — because he could not have run his eulogy for the dirty old man if he had known. Instead, he said on the Today programme last month that the decision whether to broadcast was Rippon’s alone: “He was not brought under any pressure from anybody in the management chain in his own division or elsewhere to make a different judgment than the one he made.”
He just knew that his bosses were watching him. You can always find reasons to kill investigative journalism. By its nature, it is unsettling and controversial. Rippon explained that he suppressed his colleagues’ story because Savile was dead and there was no “public interest” in dragging up old muck. He could not prove that the police and prosecutors had failed in their duty to pursue Savile. And so on and on he went. On one point, he was insistent. There was no connection between the BBC tribute to Savile and its corporate desire to avoid embarrassing questions and his decision to censor.
Media managers suffer from delusions of omnipotence. They think that if they kill a story it stays in the grave. They do not understand that if witnesses talk to one journalist they will talk to others if their story is ignored. ITV broadcast the testimony of women who said that Savile had abused them when they were girls on BBC premises and at a children’s home. By early last month, the police had 130 lines of inquiry, and Liz MacKean had taken redundancy from the BBC. The excuses Newsnight offered look cowardly in retrospect and must have seemed pathetic to MacKean and her colleagues at the time. You have ten independent source — ten! — and still you keep quiet.
In case you think I am BBC-baiting, I should add that at least the BBC allows challenges to its hierarchy. After the Savile scandal broke, George Entwistle had to go on the Today programme, whose presenters are never happier than when they can tear their managers apart on live radio. When Entwistle implied that the editor of Newsnight had no need to worry about his bosses circling over him like glassy-eyed crows, Evan Davis did what any sensible person would have done and burst out laughing.
Consider how rarely such laughter is heard. One of the least explored aspects of free speech in Western societies is the power of employers to enforce silence. Citizens can go on television — on Newsnight, if you wish — and denounce their politicians. The secret police do not come for them. Yet if they criticise their employers they can expect their managers to demote or fire them. After the great crash of 2007-08, we ought to understand the importance of plain talking in the workplace. Insiders at NatWest knew that Fred Goodwin was leading his bank to ruin. HBOS fired its own risk manager for saying that its habit of giving mortgages to anyone with a pulse was insanely risky. But it is still taken as a given that employees who speak out against public or private bureaucracies have no one to blame but themselves if their career suffers. Confusion persists between the interests of managers — who want to protect their status by silencing criticism — and the interests of organisations, and the shareholders or taxpayers who fund them, which need the freedom to scrutinise rent-seeking or incompetent managers.
What applies to the bust banks applies to the media. Press Gazette, the newspaper business’s trade journal, invited the News of the World‘s former managing editor Stuart Kuttner to damn Newsnight. “The media should not be in the business of self-censorship,” he said. Nor should they. But Kuttner’s criticisms would have had more bite if Press Gazette had not felt obliged to inform its readers that he was currently awaiting trial on charges of conspiring to intercept communications without lawful authority. I am not compromising the sub judice laws when I say that nothing has emerged in the phone hacking scandal that suggests that reporters were free to complain to their managers about allegedly illegal practices. In what we used to call Fleet Street the notion that tabloid reporters should criticise their managers in public remains unthinkable. But it would have been better for the tabloids if staff could have put the interest of their papers before the interest of their managers, just as it would have been better for the BBC if it had broken news of a scandal rather than leaving it to others.
After it had all come out, the director general told Today, “With the benefit of hindsight I think we could all wish that Newsnight had been able to go as far as ITV went.” Put yourself in Rippon’s place at that awkward moment. Where once he might have been damned if he did, now he was damned because he didn’t. You should not even think about a career in journalism if you don’t instinctively know without needing to wait on events that, if you are going to be damned, you should damn well publish and be damned.