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19 October 2012

Whatever bad decisions the BBC made about Jimmy Savile in the past, they're making it all worse now

Jimmy Savile

I’m as Saviled out as most of the country; I could never stand Jimmy Savile and I’m as revolted as anyone by his general creepiness and nastiness. Still, the continuing revelations put the spotlight on some of the worst aspects of respected institutions. Mesmerised by his celebrity and fund-raising abilities, hospitals gave him unchecked access to the vulnerable. The BBC chose neither to see nor to hear evil.

The truth is that whatever the fine ideals behind institutions, human nature dictates that as the years go by it is its own survival that becomes an institution’s priority. Whether it’s the Vatican, Parliament or the local flower-arranging society, members tend to band together against the outside world, view criticism as malign and try at all costs to keep wrongdoing secret and to avoid boat-rocking.

Even though I’m accustomed to this, I’m in awe of how badly the BBC is handling this scandal. The latest dither is over when to transmit the Newsnight investigation that was shelved in favour of Savile tributes.

It’s no surprise that there is panic at the top. It was Lord Patten, the Chairman of the BBC Trust, who chose George Entwistle to be Director-General. I didn’t understand at the time why the man who had presided over the embarrassing scandal that was the BBC coverage of the Jubilee Regatta should be thought to be a safe pair of hands, but I assumed Patten saw it as an unusual lapse in his usually impeccable judgment. Now, between the two of them, they’re bumbling, dodging and wittering, not seeming even to know which of them is in charge of what. As Sir John Tusa, who used to run the World Service, pointed out the other day, Entwistle is in effect the BBC’s editor-in-chief and the question of whether the Newsnight programme should have been pulled is his to answer. “Entwistle should have said to Lord Patten, his chairman, 'I will find out what happened; I will set up the inquiry; we will then report to you and the BBC Trust; and then you can decide what to do. You can’t have both the non-executive, which is Chris Patten, and the executive, tumbling over one another with different inquiries. One inquiry, run by the editor-in-chief, who then hands it to the non-executive chairman, that’s how a sensibly run organisation would work.”

Today Patten and Entwistle will no doubt be falling over each other as they panic over an embarrassing email that shows that BBC higher echelons knew more than they let on about what Newsnight had actually been investigating.

There is much that I love about the BBC. Radio 4 is a constant and cherished companion, and when I’m in America, I become misty-eyed with longing for it. But there’s no ignoring Beeb wastefulness, its absurd layers of bureaucracy and its self-importance. Of all its recent mistakes over Savile, what annoyed me most was the issue of Desert Island Discs. First they said they wouldn’t remove it from the archive: then they changed their corporate mind and expunged it. Why? Because listening to it might turn us plebs into paedophiles? Are they hiding all tapes of his performances in the cellars as we speak?

Man up, BBC. Decide who’s in charge, find out the truth quickly and tell it immediately. It’s your only chance of surviving this mess with some dignity.

Ruth Dudley Edwards


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