Ewan Crawford: BBC faces a searching examination

Jimmy Savile pictured in his Radio One studio in 1972
Jimmy Savile pictured in his Radio One studio in 1972
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SAVILE scandal has raised wider concerns about how the public service broadcaster is being run, writes Ewan Crawford.

One of the oddest aspects of the BBC’s handling of the Jimmy Savile scandal was a Newsnight discussion about how a programme called Newsnight had covered the story. The presenter, Gavin Esler, was asking guests for their opinions when presumably he knew far more about the affair than they did. “I don’t know – you tell me” would have been the reasonable reply to many of his questions.

It also sounds strange when various BBC reports announce that no-one from the BBC was available for comment, as if it was an external organisation. Yesterday, for example, the lead story on the BBC news website, was based on revelations expected to be aired by a BBC programme, Panorama, about the judgment and motivation of another BBC show.

Although odd, supporters of the BBC would presumably say this just demonstrates the independence of producers, which in turn illustrates one of the key points the senior management is trying to make: that they wouldn’t interfere in editorial decision-making within individual programmes just because the subject was the corporation.

As a former BBC journalist, I can never remember managers from outside the news and current affairs department seeking to influence a story, whether it was about the BBC or anything else.

When in the late 1990s BBC Scotland executives were keen on the idea of a “Scottish Six” news bulletin replacing the London-produced show, I can recall senior non-news figures making their way to the Good Morning Scotland desk during a major international event. But this was to find out how things were done, not to influence content.

With regard to the Savile scandal, however, the BBC urgently needs to answer questions rather more clearly than it has done so far. In all this, it shouldn’t be forgotten that by far the most important issue is how Savile was able to carry out such horrendous crimes over such a long period of time.

In terms of the BBC’s reaction once the allegations started to be investigated by Newsnight, one of the key points that Panorama wanted to establish was when, and what, the current director-general, George Entwistle, was told.

It’s been reported that in his previous role as head of BBC Vision, he had a conversation of a few seconds with another executive about the Newsnight story and “its possible impact” on a planned Savile Christmas tribute show.

This is where clarity is needed and which may now be provided when the director-general appears in front of MPs today. It may be that because of the Chinese walls that are said to exist within the BBC, Mr Entwistle would not have believed it appropriate to inquire further.

But if this was the case, then it means internal regulations took precedence over common-sense and basic judgment. If one part of the BBC was investigating credible claims of child abuse by one of its most iconic figures, then surely this should have led to the immediate withdrawal of the tribute programme.

Within Newsnight itself, an extraordinary level of confusion and disagreement has become evident, resulting in the “stepping aside” of the programme editor, Peter Rippon. This followed the admission from the BBC that his only public statement on the matter was inaccurate or incomplete.

Mr Rippon had questioned the public interest in running allegations of Savile’s abuse in the absence of what he calls evidence of “institutional failure” by the BBC, the police or prosecuting authorities. His reporters, however, say they were clear the story was about the presenter using his status and access to abuse young girls.

The question has to be asked: how on earth could these allegations not be in the public interest? Although two investigations have been established, the BBC is finding out that – like many of the other organisations it reports on – the promise of answers in the future will not help if there is confusion today.

Beyond the formal investigations and immediate questions surrounding the circumstances of Savile’s crimes, the BBC is now facing wider issues about the way it is run. Senior figures both inside and outside the corporation are talking of a crisis and some right-wing commentators and newspapers traditionally hostile to the broadcaster are in full-cry.

When it is said that the BBC is in crisis, however, it is not immediately clear what this means. If a government or a private company is said to be facing a crisis, it often means it is fighting for its survival. Despite what is turning out to be a disaster, there is no real sense that many people are questioning the BBC’s right to exist.

I, for example, believe that when it comes to Scotland it is failing in one of the most basic purposes of a public service broadcaster, that of providing a window on the country and society it is broadcasting to. But I believe, naively perhaps, that this can be addressed if there was greater willingness to engage in open debate.

In its last major controversy, when it became the target of a ferocious campaign waged by Tony Blair’s Downing Street operation over its coverage of the government’s justification for the war in Iraq, it did indeed feel for a day or two as if the whole corporation was teetering.

The chairman and the director-general both resigned, but what made that period so alarming was the direct involvement of the government of the day – something that is not a factor this time round.

The current investigations may also lead to further resignations. More importantly, the Savile affair demonstrates the central role of the BBC in British cultural and public life. Its wide definition of what a public service broadcaster should do, particularly the importance it places on entertainment, means it will always have the ability to create and promote powerful celebrities. Given the exorbitant salaries paid to some of these presenters, maybe the BBC lost touch with its core purposes.

In any case, tragically in the case of Jimmy Savile, one of those celebrities clearly abused that power in the most shocking way. It should also be remembered that the BBC is not the only organisation facing scrutiny. Savile’s access to hospitals, even apparently having his own bedroom in one, was seen previously as part of his lovable eccentricity but now, of course, appears to be much more sinister.

But whatever the debates and impact on individuals at the BBC, it should not be forgotten that these pale into insignificance compared with the impact on those who have paid the highest price: Savile’s victims.