BBC boss interrogated by MPs as-it-happened
09:36 – Morning. It is, once again, the biggest scandal in the BBC's history. Just like the Russell Brand phone call and the Hutton inquiry. Except this one is MORE SCANDALOUS. To be fair, it's certainly more scandalous than the paternalistic tediousness of the Brand row and the whitewash avalanche that was Hutton. The BBC is facing questions as to why a Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile was scrapped late last year. I'll give you specific details of that in a moment but the biggest questions will be whether director general George Entwistle was aware of allegations about Savile when he allowed tribute programmes on the sex offender to go out last Christmas. The public deals with politics in vivid, colourful, emotive brush strokes. That type of hypocrisy would imprint itself on the public consciousness more than any debate about the specific date a programme went out.
09:50 – Entwistle will be joined by David Jordan, BBC head of editorial. Here are the questions he will be asked: Why did Entwistle, in his former role as head of television, allow tributes to go ahead last Christmas if he knew about the Savile scandal? Last December BBC head of news Helen Boaden spoke to him about potential conflicts between the Newsnight investigation and the schedule/BBC reputation. What exactly did she say and how did he react in the days afterwards? Why didn't he ask for more details of what seemed a horrible story? What did Boaden then say to Peter Rippon, the Newsnight editor who stepped aside yesterday? Why did he seem to change his mind so quickly on the story? Bear in mind that, as with all these sorts of inquiries, Entwistle will only be able to give his side of the story. It will necessarily be frustrating to get just a part of the puzzle. We won't get full answers until other witnesses are called.
10:03 – Our news story this morning on the Entwistle appearance is here although there's not much in there you won't get here. There's also our five minute get-up-to-speed summary of everything you need to know about the Savile scandal. It's like that bit in Matrix where he learns King Fu, but with words and horror. And finally, my take on the affair can be read here or listened to here in a panel show on Voice of Russia. Kick off is at 10:30 BST.
10:11 – There are several commentators becoming uncomfortable with the focus on the BBC, to the detriment of other aspects of this scandal. Probably the best is from Nick Cohen at the Spectator. For a sense of balance, Max Hastings uses his Mail piece to give aunty both barrels.
10:29 – Ok, we should be off in a minute or so.
10:33 – MPs are sat down. We're just waiting for Entwistle.
10:34 – And I've just spotted our correspondent Alex Stevenson make his way into the press section, so we should be getting a sketch after the session ends. That wasn't a certainty – the queue for the session stretched down the hallway.
10:36 – Tom Watson, scourge of the Murdoch media, is not in today. Most of the Tory MPs on the committee are. How surprising. The chair is John Whittingdale, a moderate Tory who nevertheless has made clear the Beeb has questions to answer.
10:39 – Off we go. Whittingdale asks if Entwistle agrees this is the worst scandal for 50 years. He says it's "very, very grave". Whittingdale: "The concern about the handling of this matter by the BBC is raising very serious questions. Would you accept this has not been handled well in the last few weeks." Entwistle: "No, I wouldn't accept that. We have done much of what we should have done. The first thing we did was for me to make contact personally with the police."
10:42 – Does he accept the reputation for trust is in jeopardy? Entwistle says the way Savile was able to get away with it raises questions of trust. "One cannot look at it with anything other than horror. That's a matter of grave regret for me." He says he wants to put it right through the twin reviews – one on Newsnight, one of decades of culture at the BBC.
10:44 – Does he accept the last 24 hours, where a BBC programme carries interviews contradicting the statements from another BBC programme maker, is not a triumph? Entwistle says it is a matter of "regret and embarrassment" that the blog from Rippon was not accurate.
10:46 – He says the Panorama programme showed it asking questions of itself which no other media organisation would be able to do. Rather than regard it as a symptom of chaos, it was a symptom of the health of BBC journalism".
10:47 – Entwistle is told Savile was symptomatic of a culture at the BBC. He wasn't the only one. Entwistle says there was a problem of culture, although I doubt he'll go as far as his questioner. How does the BBC deal with allegations of sexual harassment? Entwistle says that today you can speak to HR, your line manager, a whistle blowing line or their trade union rep. How does that differ to theirt treatment in the 60's and 70's. Entwistle says the culture of awareness was not there. So far he is putting forward a cautious, careful case, choosing his words delicately but not being evasive.
10:51 – Entwistle is attacked for not knowing the precise number of complaints of sexual harrassment at the BBC in the 60's and 70's. He also doesn't know how many in the last two years. He is asked what sort of figure would upset him. he says anything more than five. "So up to five is alright?" Entwistle obviously says that wasn't what he meant. Who is currently working for BBC and has previous complaints made against them? Better question. Entwistle says there is tracking being undertaken. "New allegations are being made…" He is asked about the ones already made. There are five to ten serious allegations over the whole period in question – the Savile period (1959 to now).
10:55 – Phillip Davis is causing a bit of havoc here, asking questions such as who was bringing the children backstage to meet Savile after shows? Entwistle says this is a matter for the review. Davis suggests the review is kicking it into the long grass. Entwistle says it's the opposite of an attempt to hide things. The reviews are sent directly to the BBC Trust, there will be no editing at all. "The scope and scale of these reviews is as wide as it could possibly be." Davis says he has "a lamentable lack of knowledge" so how could he really have dealt with these matters as he should have done. Entwistle says the reviews are the right course.
10:59 – Steve Rotherham, Labour, is up. He's like the seventh Beatle.
11:01 – Jordan chips in with one answer. Entwistle says Savile concealed his paedophile activities very well. The literature suggests this is fairly typical. He's asked if the crux of the problem is that Savile got away with it. Sigh. MPs, as you know, do not always have the finest minds nor the forensic approaches to data. Case in point. Entwistle is allowed to talk away. I have to question how far Savile concealed anything. If you watched that Panorama programme last night that was not the impression. It was as if he was hiding in plain sight. Jordan maps out the safety measures to protect children in the audience of TV shows. Anything like children being taken into the dressing rooms of stars could not happen today.
11:06 – The committee's main problem so far is that they are focusing on the questions Entwistle has set up an inquiry to answer. If he knew the questions he wouldn't have set it up, surely. Adrian Sanders, Lib Dem, starts asking the questions.
11:08 – Sanders looks appalling, like someone brought back to life. It's like staring into the embodiment of winter.
11:09 – Has Entwistle heard the Panorama interview with one of Savile's victims before? No, but he was aware of its existence. On age limits at Top of the Pops, Entwistle says it changed from 15 to 16 in the early 1970's. They can't find why the change was made. There was a News of the World investigation which might have triggered it. Sanders refers to the suicide of a girl who was a dancer on TOTP. Apparently her suicide note named celebrities who had used her. Entwistle can't find an investigation into that matter.
11:13 – Is Entwistle concerned about wilful blindness? He says he is, of course. Now it's Therese Coffey, Tory MP, bit of a wet blanket. She says the way victims were described as "just some women" shows there is still sexism at the BBC, just like in the 70's. Entwistle condemns that quote and says culture has changed since the 70's, but not enough. "This is something the BBC simply has to get right," he adds. He says Dinah Rose QC will work with them to look at their handling of these issues. She will report to him on making sure the culture is all it should be.
11:16 – Wow. Ben Bradshaw has actually bothered to turn up. He never bothered with phone-hacking. A former BBC employee, he always has something in for the corporation – mostly since the Iraq war days. Yeah, he really bears a grudge. He says his partner works for the BBC and then starts asking questions. Why didn't his news managers get to the bottom of the dispute very quickly. Surely his job was to establish facts as quickly as possible. Instead he toured TV studios "still peddling Rippon's defence". Entwistle says he thought Rippon was correct. "I had to keep in my mind the possibility that Peter Rippon's account …may have been accurate," he says cautiously. Is he sure the current BBC account is accurate? He says to the best of his knowledge it is.
11:25 – Bradshaw is doing well here. He asks about the Boaden conversations. Entwistle says she may have checked the veracity of the sources. Could that have been interpreted as pressure from above? Entwistle says it's keeping up standards, but he looks nervous and fidgety. Have they both been let down by BBC news managers? Entwistle says it's not right to make that judgement now -that's why they have external control of the inquiries.
11:28 – We move onto another questioner, Tory Damian Collins. He suggests the wrong thing has happened but because all the BBC procedures have been followed no-one's too upset about it. Was it ultimately always the editor of Newsnight's decision to run the story? Yes, Entwistle says, unless he refers it upwards. So what's the point of the director general being editor in chief if he has no direct editorial control. Absurd question, given the extent of its output. Entwistle says he has responsibility, not control.
11:33 – Ah. Bad Ian. It turns out Bradshaw wasn't on the committee during the phone-hacking inquiry. I stand corrected.
11:37 – Labour's Paul Farrelly is up. He says the blog on Newsnight begged more questions than it answered. The fact they didn't think Jimmy Savile being a paedophile was a story seems more than a little odd. Why didn't that trigger more questions. "The purpose of the blog was to address the particularly prevalent allegation he had come under unreasonable managerial pressure," Entwistle says. Entwistle stammering and hesitating all over the place now – really struggling.
11:40 – None of this bodes well for Rippon – his blog was wrong, he made the wrong call on the Newsnight investigation. But is he a sacrificial lamb of the man at the top? He's also in trouble for saying the Pollard review would look at Rippon's editorial decision to drop Newsnight. Apparently the BBC press conference explicitly said it wouldn't.
11:44 – Either the journalists describing the briefing are wrong, or Entwistle is making it up as he goes along, or he has just misled a select committee. I think the first and third options are unlikely.
11:45 – Farrelly says this is an example of "an amazing lack of curiosity on behalf of a journalist".
11:46 – Farrelly drops the ball a bit when he says the Panorama decision to investigate shows chaos. Entwistle says he is proud its programme makers don't have to think of corporate interests. Farrelly says it looks like "the BBC at war". Editorially did you think it had defects? Entwistle: "No I thought it was a good edition of Panorama."
11:50 – Farrelly says the confusion shows how unclear his role is. Is he editor in chief or just a senior manager. He says his job is about responsibility, not interference. Coffey is back. She asks if the Rippon blog was clared Yes, by one person. The clarifiation yesterday was produced by himself and legal advisers. It was shown to Rippon. She moves onto the ITV documentary. Why did it take 8 or 9 days between that and the inquiry? Entwistle says there were legal questions. The first week he made sure they were cooperating with the police.
11:53 – He accepts he should have been clearer earlier that he wanted a review. That was unconvincing. My guess if he accepted the reviews when it became obvious he couldn't escape them. Coffey is on the Christmas tributes. Whittingdale stops her. He's obviously planning to move onto that.
11:56 – Bradshaw wants an assurance there will be no deal which would see Rippon go quietly in exchange for the BBC not trashing his version of events. That's a very intelligent, sensible question that a seasoned politician would ask.
11:57 – Was it normal for Rippon to stop the programme without seeing all he material? It's hard to generalise, Entwistle says. Isn't he alarmed these parts of the evidence weren't reviewed? "It's very hard to make a judgement about someone else's state of mind," he replies. Whittingdale moves onto Entwistle's own knowledge at the turn of the year. This is the serious part for Entwistle. The next few moments could decide his career – and the impact of the scandal on the BBC.
12:00 – He describes the chat at the party in which Boaden warned him if the Newsnight programme went ahead it could hit the Xmas schedule. It was a short chat. He was grateful for "the heads up". The key message he took away was that they needed to check if it could stand up. He's asked why he didn't check more for updates given they are talking about the boxing day schedule. "Schedules can be changed fairly easily," he says. They were one-offs, not part of a series.
12:02 – He left the conversation assuming he would be updated if something was going to happen. When it was going to be shown, he would then deal with the repercussions of that. "Allegations about very famous and prominent people get made," he says. "I thought she was being a considerate colleague giving me the chance to reflect on what the technical implications might be. My assumption was if there was anything I needed to know I would have been told. I didn't see further information. Obviously this is something I've reflected on a lot. The reason I didn't see further information was this determination I had was to observe the separate distinction between news and television." He didn't want to put pressure on them. Isn't that a blind spot. Concerns go up – not sideways – until they hit the director general.
12:05 – "In the light of what's happened of course I do [regret showing the Savile tribute]," Entwistle says. "The key thing I needed to know was; did they have something good enough to proceed with?"
12:08 – What did he think they were investigating – police or Savile? Entwistle says he didn't really consider it. Whittingdale is baffled. A major BBC figure who was about to receive tributes – and he didn't care? Entwistle says he didn't want to give it undue interference. "You didn't even say to her what it was about," Whittingdale asks. Entwistle says that as someone who came from news, he didn't want to show undue interest – to interfere. "Perhaps I was being oversensitive," he admits. Davies buts in to suggest that applies to everything he does at the BBC.
12:10 – Surely he should have cancelled the tribute programmes anyway? He says he didn't consider that. Davies suggests being unable to stand something up legally is different to thinking there's enough evidence not to run a tribute programme. Entwistle says his systems need to be better "calibrated". Sigh.
12:13 – What has he done about changing BBC culture in the past during his 23 yers at the corporation? "We've made some progress bu there is more progress to make," he says.
12:17 – Davies continues. Were there plans for a new Jimm'll fix it programme (with a different host obviously – he was dead). There were plans. Had much money been spent? If they were considering it, why didn't it go ahead for a planned Xmas special? He's not sure. Has he asked? No. Will he? "Yes, I will," he says. Davies: "Are there any other questions you'd like us to ask that you haven't thought of yourself?" The audience laughs. Entwistle winces. Painful.
12:20 – We're back on that conversation about the Newsnight programme and the Xmas schedule. He can survive it, but he comes across as very incurious. "It's very hard to understand the lack of curiosity," Farrelly says. Entwistle replies: "My background as a journalist made me pay particular attention to whether it was stood up or not. There was a distinct possibility it might fade away. As a journalist you are privy to many accusations. Some of them turn out true, some don't."
12:22 – Why did Rippon have that sudden change of mind about the Newsnight programme. Who sat on him? Have you come to any conclusions? Entwistle: "Is it not possible that he changed his mind. He became more concerned with the importance of the Surrey police investigation and became convinced that without that he didn't have what he needed to tell the story."
12:25 – Entwistle makes the point other organisations failed to uncover this, not just the BBC. "But it was on your doorstep," he is told. Entwistle says he was very accomplished at hiding his activities. Bradshaw brings up the Gilligan scandal, and mentions that Entwistle was Newsnight editor back then. "Is there still a problem with the management at the BBC even now," he says. They don't listen to people at the grassroots? Entwistle says the key difference between the death of David Kelly and now is that he very quickly set up an inquiry this time. Coffey says the BBC is now so risk-averse it needs court-level proof to go live with a broadcast. Entwistle says he doesn't want to be risk averse, he was adventure.
12:31 – We're wrapping up now. Ah, Whittingdale asks when the report is coming out? Entwistle says he is trying to get it done quickly as possible. "I Will do everything inside the BBC to make sure it is done as quickly as possible." Bradshaw says he should assemble the facts himself as director general. He's a bit damned if he does damned if he doesn't – that route would leave him open to charges of not allowing independent investigations. The inquiry will have access to all relevant documents and can go wherever it wants. Entwistle says they expanded the terms yesterday to allow that – this clears up whether he's making up as he goes along. He was in fact making it up yesterday. Whittingdale brings proceedings to a close.
12:35 – Entwistle did not cover himself in glory there. He was uninspiring, frustratingly incurious and far more fascinated by systems than he appeared to be by journalism. But his critics are overstating how badly he did. He escaped the most dangerous charge – that he allowed the tributes to go out despite having suspicions, even if his only way to escape it was by appearing unspeakably dull. He will not have enjoyed the experience and it will probably not stop the scandal heating up, but he managed to avoid the most deadly eventualities and he did not worsen it.