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BBC Releases Jimmy Savile Scandal Probe Transcripts

Savile and Girl - P 2013

U.K. media had a field day Friday with statements from the likes of former director generals Mark Thompson and George Entwistle about a dropped report that put the BBC in crisis mode.

LONDON --The BBC on Friday released 19 witness statements, including from two of its former bosses, that were made as part of its review of the decision to drop a news magazine report about sex abuse allegations against late TV host Jimmy Savile.

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The review concluded late last year and criticized the BBC's handling of the report about the Savile crisis. But Friday saw the release of 3,000 pages of interviews with key players and email exchanges from BBC executives.

The statements from George Entwistle, who resigned from the BBC director general post amid the scandal, and his predecessor Mark Thompson, who now runs the New York Times Co. as CEO, were among those drawing U.K. media attention. British papers and TV networks also pored over the full statements from BBC Trust chairman Chris Patten and Peter Rippon, the former head of news magazine Newsnight, which was at the center of the controversy over BBC coverage of the case.

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"From the thousands of pages that are being published, redactions have been applied for a very limited number of legal reasons and roughly 3 percent of the transcripts have been redacted," the BBC said in a statement.
 
Said acting director general Tim Davie: "The BBC has been open and transparent in its handling of this unhappy chapter in our history. It has not been an entirely comfortable process for us to go through, but it is right that we did it this way. It is important that the BBC now moves forward with the lessons learned and continues to regain the public’s trust.”

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Thompson in his testimony for the BBC review was asked about tensions arising from running a broadcaster that on one hand might broadcast a tribute show to a personality like Savile, while another department is prepping a news item about his criminal activities. Thompson said that he did not see this "as an unmanageable conflict at all."

Said Thompson: "Once you know about it, you work out what to do. Indeed it is very valuable to learn, because if Newsnight are finding out some things that are very disturbing or damaging that, that would make you want to think about what you do with the tribute program."

Thompson reiterated that during his two stints with the BBC culminating in his eight years at director general that "at no point" did he work with Jimmy Savile or "work in those parts of the BBC where he did the bulk of his broadcasting." He also once again denied ever hearing about "the dark side of Jimmy Savile" in his time at the BBC.

The former BBC boss also said one of the most damaging aspects of the Newsnight Savile controversy was the "potentially damaging allegation that there had been a conspiracy to suppress a piece of investigative journalism in the first instance."

Entwistle was, in his interrogation, asked whether Savile's recent death may have played a role in how BBC news and other executives evaluated allegations of abuse against him.

"It was on people's minds, and I'm not surprised it was on people's minds," the transcripts of his comments said. "The prevailing culture was, you know, one of a funeral in which many tens of thousands of people had been out on the streets of Yorkshire marking his passing, and there was a sense of enthusiasm for him, for his life and his works. I would imagine that people were anxious about the notion of how quickly you could pile in after that and say there's another way of looking at this story."

Asked if there was less risk in reporting allegations against a dead person, Entwistle said: "The libel risk was removed in respect to Savile, and of course that is an advantage … But the need to be accurate and the need to have done your journalism properly would have been just as strong for somebody dead … I would not have seen that as meaning you could have lower standards of proof."

The short-lived BBC boss also discussed an interaction he had about the planned Savile report with then-BBC News head Helen Boaden during a luncheon. He said that he remembered her mention of a possible Newsnight piece with many ifs and buts. If it "stands up, if anything comes of it, it it pans out, something like that, then [there] may be implications for your Christmas schedule," he recalled her saying. "I remember saying 'thanks' and I think I might have said thanks in an ironical way, but I didn't mean to be discouraging …She definitely put something on my radar, was my feeling. I didn't feel she put something on my plate."

Asked if most journalists wouldn't have inquired what Newsnight was investigating Savile for, Entwistle replied: "I know I didn't. I don't recall asking her that." He signaled he expected a second, more in-depth conversation if the report panned out, adding that his conversation with Boaden was interrupted by other TV folks saying hi and sending air kisses.

"From [then-Newsnight editor] Peter Rippon's perspective, the reason why this story didn't run was not that there was no evidence that Jimmy Savile was a pedophile?" the transcript of the Entwistle questioning also said. "No," the former BBC boss responded. "And it wasn't even that he thought that Jimmy Savile probably wasn't a pedophile … No." The questioner concluded, and got confirmation from Entwistle, that: "What did it in the end was that there was no evidence to show that the [prosecution] hadn't pursued the story because he was old and infirm, but rather for lack of evidence and that it, on one view, not a Newsnight story."

Also in the published comments, Newsnight host Jeremy Paxman said he felt Newsnight was wrong to drop its Savile investigation when "the shit hit the fan" for the BBC.  He also said that it had been "common gossip" at the broadcaster that Savile liked young people.

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai