BBC management structure blamed in sex abuse scandal

BBC management structure blamed in sex abuse scandal

File photo: Jimmy Savile

London:  Lax leadership hampered by "rigid management chains" left the British Broadcasting Corp. "completely incapable" of dealing with the sexual abuse crisis that has shaken the network, in the words of an exhaustive report released Wednesday.

The 200-page report by Nick Pollard, a veteran British broadcast executive, strongly criticized the editorial and management decisions that prompted the BBC to cancel a broadcast last year that would have exposed decades of sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile, a BBC fixture who had been one of Britain's best-known television personalities.

While the scandal led to the resignation and reassignment of several top executives - including George Entwhistle, just two months into his tenure in the BBC's top job as director-general - Pollard absolved top management of applying "undue pressure" in the decision to stop the broadcast.

The report also did not challenge the assertions of Mark Thompson, then head of the BBC, that he had no role in killing the Savile investigation and was unaware of the sexual abuse accusations until he left the BBC this September. Thompson is now president and chief executive of The New York Times Co.

The report traced in detail what it described as "a chain of events that was to prove disastrous for the BBC." Its central conclusion was that confusion and mismanagement, not a cover-up, lay at the heart of the decision to drop the Savile segment on "Newsnight," an investigative program. Savile died at 84 in October 2011, weeks before the segment was scheduled to run.

"The efforts to get to the truth behind the Savile story proved beyond the combined efforts of the senior management, legal department, corporate communications team and anyone else for well over a month" after a rival channel, ITV, broadcast its own expose in October 2011. That segment presented the accounts of five women who said they had been sexually abused as teenagers by Savile, the report said.

Pollard, a former head of the Sky News channel who began his broadcast career as a BBC reporter, dismissed a widely circulated theory that BBC News executives or their superiors pressured the "Newsnight" team to cancel the Savile segment to avoid embarrassing the BBC. Peter Rippon, the program's editor, said that he canceled the report because he thought the team's conclusions about Savile inadequately substantiated.

"While there clearly were discussions about the Savile story between Mr. Rippon and his managers," Pollard said, he does not believe that they went beyond journalistic considerations.

After publication of the report, Tim Davie, the BBC's acting director general, said that Stephen Mitchell, the deputy director of news, would be taking early retirement and that Rippon would be moved to another job. Helen Boaden, director of the news division, who along with Rippon and Mitchell was suspended while the nine-week Pollard inquiry was in progress, will return to her job, overseeing new editorial leadership at "Newsnight."

In a statement, the BBC Trust, which oversees the broadcaster, said the report made clear the need for major changes in the BBC's operation. It said top executives must take initiative and responsibility, share information and embrace criticism, and persuade employees to rid the company of the "insularity and distrust" revealed in the report.

"The BBC portrayed by the Pollard review is not fundamentally flawed, but has been chaotic," it said. "That now needs to change."

The report was strongly critical of several news executives who were directly involved in the decision to cancel the Savile program, including Rippon and the top executives in the BBC's news division to whom he reported, Boaden and Mitchell, saying they had reached a "flawed" conclusion in canceling the "Newsnight" segment that overrode the "cogent evidence" against Savile that the "Newsnight" team had gathered.

But it paid scant attention to the role of the former director-general, Thompson, and did not fault him for missing opportunities to learn the details of the allegations against Savile.

After Thompson was told about the scuttled segment by a BBC reporter at a reception in late December 2011, he said, he asked his news executives about it. According to his testimony to the Pollard inquiry, he "received reassurances" that it had been killed for "editorial or journalistic reasons" and "crossed it off my list and went off to worry about something else."

The report was faulted in some quarters for its generally kid-gloves treatment of the BBC's senior management.

Ben Bradshaw, a former BBC reporter and culture minister in the previous Labour government with responsibility for the BBC, described Pollard's findings as "lacerating" and said the shuffling of midlevel executives was not enough.

"I think people will be asking themselves whether the level of the response from the BBC to this report today has been adequate and commensurate to the seriousness" of the report, he said.

Chris Patten, chairman of the trust, told a BBC interviewer that he saw no reason for taking an ax to the broadcaster's top management. "The management problems," he said, "have to be addressed. But I don't think you necessarily address them by just putting heads on spikes."

In the weeks after the "Newsnight" cancellation, the Savile investigation became the subject of news media coverage in Britain that cited some of the evidence of sexual abuse by Savile.BBC officials have said some of the articles were included in press summaries prepared for Thompson. But Pollard wrote: "Mr. Thompson told me that the various press stories which followed passed him by. I have no reason to doubt what he told me."

In September, during Thompson's final days at the BBC, the corporation asked an outside law firm to send a letter to The Sunday Times threatening to sue if the paper went ahead with plans to publish an article alleging that he and Boaden had been involved in a conspiracy to scuttle the segment.

The Pollard report said it was clear that Thompson "did approve sending the letter." But he told the inquiry that he did not recall being briefed about the letter's contents, the report said, and was "very clear that he didn't read the detail of the letter."

Pollard's chronicle of the BBC's mistakes included its decision to broadcast several Savile tribute programs during the 2011 holiday season. The tributes ran without any mention of sexual abuse and rape allegations against Savile, a household name in Britain for his starring roles in popular BBC shows.

The report described "chaos and confusion" in the decisions that led to the cancellation of the broadcast in November 2011, and in the events that followed, culminating in the resignation last month of Entwistle, who succeeded Thompson.

Entwistle quit amid the furore that erupted when "Newsnight" broadcast a segment that wrongly identified a former politician, Alistair McAlpine, as a paedophile who abused boys at a children's home in Wales in the 1970s and 1980s. The BBC has agreed to pay McAlpine about $300,000 in damages.

A preliminary report into the McAlpine debacle by Ken MacQuarrie, the director of BBC Scotland, concluded that the editorial management of "Newsnight" had already been weakened by suspensions and other disruptions caused by the Savile affair. A fuller version of MacQuarrie's report was published together with the Pollard report on Wednesday.

The BBC said Adrian Van Klaveren, the head of a BBC radio station, who was the acting head of news at the time of the McAlpine report, would be moved to a non-news job within the BBC.

(Matthew Purdy contributed reporting from New York)

© 2012, The New York Times News Service

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