BBC chiefs appearing before the House of Commons’ culture, media and sport committee to discuss the national broadcaster’s annual report appeared frustrated at the repeated questions relating to the former director-general – current New York Times Corp. CEO Mark Thompson – and the Savile affair.
But lawmakers returned several times to the matter, with one of them insisting that “people still want to know what the truth was.”
In dispute is the question of exactly when Thompson first became aware of allegations of child sex abuse by Savile, a popular British TV personality who died in late 2011 and was honored in BBC tribute programs over the Christmas period that year.
BBC’s Newsnight program began an investigation into allegations of Savile’s abuses, but when it was later dropped critics suspected the decision was taken – possibly on orders from above – to avoid an embarrassing clash with the planned tributes to the dead man.
An independent inquiry launched to investigate that suspicion concluded late last year that the decision to abandon the Newsnight story was not improper. Inquiry chairman Nick Pollard, the former chief of a television news channel not related to the BBC, did find serious management failures.
Thompson told the Pollard Review he did not know the subject of the Newsnight investigation until after he left the BBC in September 2012 to take up his post in New York.
Pollard’s final report accepted Thompson’s word, but it subsequently emerged that lawyers for the BBC’s then-head of news, Helen Boaden, had told the Pollard Review that Boaden had discussed the Savile abuse allegations in a phone conversation with Thompson about nine months before the director-general’s departure. Pollard said the seeming contradiction between the two accounts had not changed his earlier-stated opinion.
At Tuesday’s Commons committee meeting, the current BBC director-general, Tony Hall, and the chairman of the BBC’s governing Trust, Chris Patten, were asked again about the Thompson-Boaden conversation.
Hall noted that Pollard had not changed his conclusions regarding Thompson because of the Boaden evidence. Hall added that it was time to move on, and that he just wanted to get on with the job of “changing the culture that led to the errors described by Pollard.”
But Conservative committee member Conor Burns pressed the point.
“This will never truly go away until we know what the then-director general knew,” he told Hall.
“If he was told by Helen Boaden what her lawyers allege he was told, that leaves a very serious question mark. As much as you want to move on, people are going to remain curious for a long time to come.”
Hall repeated that Pollard himself had said the Boaden claims did not affect his original conclusion.
“People still want to know what the truth was,” Burns persisted. “People were so repulsed by what emerged about Savile. It was such a pivotal moment for the BBC, that people are going to remain curious until the facts are fully known.”
Another Conservative member of the committee, Philip Davies, asked Patten what the BBC Trust – which commissioned the Pollard Review in the first place – was doing about the fact the inquiry’s final report had not included the information about Boaden’s phone conversation with Thompson.
Patten defended the inquiry and report, calling it “thorough and independent.”
“It would be bizarre if I was to try to rewrite it now,” he said. “I have no reason to suppose that we shouldn’t accept that report [as it is].”
The hearing also touched on another controversy – also arising during much of the period Thompson was in charge – relating to abnormally large severance packages to senior BBC executives.
Patten conceded that it had been “a bad year” for the BBC, but expressed the hope attention would soon move away from the scandals, to the broadcaster’s programming.
“If that happens, I suspect arguments about governance would seem less important in the next year or two.”