Savile: BBC in crisis

The BBC seems to totter from crisis to crisis. But the corporation’s veteran reporter John Simpson may be right to call the Jimmy Savile scandal the BBC’s worst crisis for 50 years.

Yes, it could prove worse than 2004, when its chairman and director general resigned after the Hutton report condemned the BBC Today’s account of the government’s justification for the Iraq war. The BBC actually gained support back then as many dismissed the report as a whitewash.

Savile is – potentially – different. But there are two separate threads to the story and it’s important not to confuse them.

First, did BBC executives know about Savile’s abuses and turn a blind eye? This would be appalling (despite those saying the world was very different in the 1970s), but could be seen as a by-gone issue unless today’s BBC executives were involved.

Second, did BBC executives order Newsnight to scrap its story last year because it would embarrass the corporation, which was planning Christmas tribute shows? Did bosses, including the then head of TV George Entwistle, ignore warnings about Newsnight’s evidence against Savile?

In my view, the greatest danger to the BBC’s reputation lies in what happened over the last year, not what it did 40 years ago. We don’t yet know the facts. John Simpson may be right. It’s possible that newly promoted Entwistle could go down in history as the BBC’s shortest lasting director general.

The BBC’s enemies are enjoying its discomfort. The conspiracy theorists are having a field day. But the truth may be mundane. Newsnight is not an investigative programme. Editor Peter Rippon may have got cold feet. Once he took his decision, he’s likely to have been utterly absorbed by a thousand other news stories. (Although he must have looked at the Savile tribute shows and thought back uneasily to the damning testimony of Savile’s victims in the interviews.). A serious misjudgement but understandable.

We’ll know soon if the truth is more damning.

In all the fury, we must remember two truths. The scandal is primarily about Savile and his victims. And for all its faults, the saga has shown the BBC’s strengths as well as its flaws. How many other media organisations would examine their failures in public as forensically as the BBC has this week? Panorama’s report was a triumph, as was the performance of the BBC News. Remember this when you hear politicians bashing the corporation over the coming weeks. The BBC can be infuriating, clumsy, arrogant and complacent at times. But Britain would be a far poorer country without it.

Jimmy Savile: George Entwistle and the BBC’s challenge

The Jimmy Savile scandal is breathtaking. That a celebrity should have undertaken abuse on a staggering scale without challenge is appalling.

The BBC and the NHS is at the heart of the backlash. How much did BBC bosses know about Savile’s crimes? Did they turn a blind eye? Did they cover up his actions? How did the NHS allow him open access to its wards?

The BBC’s new director general George Entwistle has endured a baptism of fire over the Savile scandal. That’s unfair in many ways – most of the alleged acts happened in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s – but history shows that managing hot issues is high on the DG’s job description. Entwistle’s account of his response to Newsnight’s Savile investigation was very naive. A savvy BBC executive would have asked a few questions on being told Newsnight was investigating Savile. Newsnight wouldn’t have been looking into whether he unduly promoted the Beatles over the Rolling Stones. Entwistle should have realised it could impact on the BBC’s Christmas tributes to Savile.

It’s easy to think there are no lessons in this for today’s society. This isn’t a 1970s story. We’re even more celebrity obsessed today. While celebrities are more likely to be exposed today for wrongdoing, they also have more power and profile than in the 1970s.

West Coast: what a way to run a railway

Once upon a time, Britain’s railways were owned by us. British Railways weren’t perfect, but by the late 1980s the service was rather good. New trains were being introduced, and the taxpayer got rather a good deal: BR was one of most efficient, and least subsidised, railway networks in the world. Clever marketing attracted millions more passengers – under the slogan The Age of the Train. (Although the choice of Jimmy Savile may not seem so wise today…) And even the much maligned sandwich was transformed by 1993.

Then political dogma intervened and John Major privatised the lot, even though respected Tory MP and rail expert Robert Adley warned the sell-off would be a poll tax on wheels. Major wanted a return to the ‘big four’ railways but we got First Great Western not the Great Western Railway. The result: a privately owned railway that is hugely more subsidised than when it was state owned, and a bureaucracy that defies belief.

Today, the flaws in that system were shockingly exposed when the Government was humiliated by being forced to scrap the award of the West Coast main line franchise to First Group. Amazingly, the Department of Transport got its sums wrong, which meant incumbent Virgin lost to First Group’s extravagantly optimistic bid, as Robert Peston explained in his blog.

Transport expert Christian Wolmar described rail privatisation in his book On the wrong line as “A malicious attack on an industry the Tories disked, with calamitous results”. (Labour hardly improved things in its 13 years in power.) Today, he commented:

“Civil servants come and go, and are deliberately trained to be generalists, while the railways need specialists. They also need stability rather than ministers who come and go at the whim of the Prime Minister. It is all too obvious that the way that the Department has been treated as a dumping ground for ministers on the way up or down is also part of the problem.”

Some of the private rail companies have done a good job, including our local line, Chiltern Railways. But Chiltern had a flying start because British Rail transformed every aspect of the line 20 years ago: new track, signalling and trains.

Three civil servants have been suspended because of the West Coast scandal. But no politician will lose their job. No politician will resign. They never do.

PS: BR was a pioneer of modern corporate identity. Its 1965 logo remains as relevant, modern and recognisable 47 years on, acting as a beacon in a fragmented, muddled rail network. Strange to think we still had steam hauled intercity express trains when it first appeared.