But the inquiry led by former Sky News chief Nick Pollard was critical of the management under his tenure, finding “chaos and confusion” and “a critical lack of leadership” at a corporation rocked by allegations that a veteran television personality had molested children over a four-decade period, sometimes on BBC premises.
Pollard described the episode as “one of the worst management crises in the BBC’s history.”
A 185-page review report released Wednesday found no evidence that the BBC’s Newsnight program had abandoned a story into the allegations against Jimmy Savile for “improper” reasons.
“The decision to drop the original investigation was flawed and the way it was taken was wrong but I believe it was done in good faith,” Pollard said in the report. “It was not done to protect the Savile tribute programs or for any improper reason.”
(There had been suspicions the decision was taken under pressure from management to avoid embarrassing the BBC, which was planning lavish tributes to the recently-deceased Savile over the Christmas period.)
“In my view, the most worrying aspect of the Jimmy Savile story for the BBC was not the decision to drop the story itself,” he said. “It was the complete inability to deal with the events that followed.”
Thompson, who left the BBC in September after eight years as director-general to take up the post in New York, moved into the spotlight after stating in October that, “During my time as director-general of the BBC I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile.”
The review did not dispute that.
Pollard said he accepted Thompson’s assurance that he was not aware that Newsnight’s investigative story related to sexual abuse.
He also accepted Thompson’s word that he had not seen various news stories on the matter in other media outlets, in some cases because, Thompson said, “he was unusually busy at the time.”
“Indeed, Mr. Thompson told me that the various press stories which followed passed him by,” Pollard wrote in the report. “I have no reason to doubt what he told me.”
Thompson, who flew to London last month to give testimony to the closed-door inquiry, recalled that he had been approached at a Christmas drinks function in 2011 by a BBC reporter who commented that he “must be worried about the Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile.”
Thompson said that his reply to her had been “very noncommittal.” (Pollard noted that the reporter “formed the impression that Mr. Thompson had no knowledge of the story.”)
Thompson said he had then “raised it with colleagues in BBC News,” and had been told that “they were doing an investigation into Jimmy Savile … but the program [team] themselves decided not to proceed with it for editorial or journalistic reasons.”
“Mr. Thompson said that this struck him as entirely normal, and that he did not learn any specifics of the investigation, and remained ignorant of the fact that the investigation was into allegations of sexual abuse,” Pollard said.
“As Mr. Thompson put it, he ‘received reassurance and indeed got the sense the whole matter was closed, crossed it off my list and went off to worry about something else.’”
‘The BBC knew that Jimmy Savile was a pedophile’
One issue that came up in the recent criticism of Thompson was the fact that, on September 6 – 10 days before he left the BBC – his own lawyers had sent a letter to the London Sunday Times threatening to sue if it went ahead with plans to publish a story suggesting he had been involved in a conspiracy to suppress the Newsnight investigation.
Since the lawyer’s letter referred unambiguously to “sexual offenses” by Savile, some observers – including London’s City University professor of television journalism Stewart Purvis, who has closely followed the saga on his blog – said this appeared to contradict Thompson’s assertion the following month that “[d]uring my time as director-general of the BBC I never heard any allegations or received any complaints about Jimmy Savile.”
Pollard looked into this aspect, and found no wrongdoing.
Thompson was aware that the letter was being prepared by the lawyers and approved of the plan to send it, but told the inquiry he did not recall being briefed about its contents and was “very clear that he didn’t read the detail of the letter.”
As to why there had been so little communication between his staff and himself on the Savile story, Thompson told the inquiry this was most likely because his colleagues “thought that this was a really well understood matter and they could adequately deal with it without drawing [him] into it.”
Pollard criticized “rigid management chains” at the BBC and a “silo mentality,” which he described as “the notion that everyone knows what his or her job is, but there is reluctance to step into someone else’s territory and, indeed, a person who does would be criticized. In my view, such an approach hinders leadership and the proper taking of control.”
After the report was released two Newsnight journalists who worked on the axed Savile investigation both released statements.
“The decision not to run the report was seriously flawed, but it was more than that,” said reporter Liz McKean. “I think the decision to drop our story was a breach of our duty to the women who trusted us to reveal that Jimmy Savile was a pedophile.”
“Last Christmas, Newsnight knew – the BBC knew – that Jimmy Savile was a pedophile,” said her colleague, Newsnight producer Meirion Jones. “We knew there’d been a police investigation, they’d taken it seriously. We’d interviewed a victim – a very good victim – on camera. We had corroboration, we had footage of victims with abusers on BBC premises, and yet the BBC decided to pull the investigation and run tributes to Jimmy Savile instead.”
“I hope the BBC takes measures to make sure nothing like that will ever happen again,” Jones said. “What I do feel confident about though is that the BBC has now taken measures to make sure that children are safe here.”
British police confirmed last week that Savile was now a suspect in an unprecedented 199 alleged crimes, most involving children or young people.
Savile was a popular, flamboyant and eccentric personality, known for his trademark jewelry and tinted glasses. During his long BBC career he hosted programs popular with younger audiences including the Top of the Pops music show, which he presented from 1964 to 1984 with subsequent guest appearances as late as 2006. He was also known for raising millions of pounds for charities.
After he died on October 29, 2011 aged 84, Thompson put out a condolence statement, which Pollard quoted in his report: “I am very sad to hear of Sir Jimmy Savile’s death. From Top of the Pops to Jim’ll Fix It, Jimmy’s unique style entertained generations of BBC audiences. Like millions of our viewers and listeners, we will miss him greatly.”