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James Harding’s right: the BBC must do some ‘accountability journalism’, but on the Savile scandal report

5 December 2013

Director of BBC News James Harding made a fascinating speech on Wednesday, setting out his mission statement for the Corporation’s newsroom:

‘Let’s start with holding people to account. In the offices of our local radio stations and regional TV operations – the places where the BBC does so much of its best work – we should play to that particular strength: accountability journalism.

Mr S lives and breathes ‘accountability journalism’; it’s his eau-de-vie. But Harding seems to have a different understanding of the term than your humble correspondent.

You would never know it from BBC News (or, for that matter, Auntie’s in-house journal The Guardian); but Nick Pollard, who was paid the tidy sum of £96,000 and given £3 million to investigate why Newsnight’s investigation into Savile was shelved, has admitted that his report is flawed. Indeed, he has been recorded on tape accepting this error.

In the taped conversation, which has been heard by the BBC Trust, Pollard says that he was told during his eight-week inquiry by then head of BBC News, Helen Boaden, that she had, in December 2011, personally informed the then director-general, Mark Thompson, of the sex abuse allegations against Savile. Boaden’s testimony (which she confirmed to MPs at a later date) was sent to Pollard in a letter by Boaden’s lawyer five days before Pollard published his report on December 19 2012. It contradicted Thompson’s assertion to Pollard that he was unaware of the allegations against Savile until after he left the BBC in September 2012. Thompson has always maintained that he and Boaden had a ‘very brief conversation’ and that they have ‘slightly different recollections’ of it.

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Strange though it may seem, Pollard neglected to mention Boaden’s account in his report. He has since recognised that this was an error. He said in the tape-recorded conversation: ‘It doesn’t particularly reflect well on me that I overlooked this in the report’. He added: ‘It’s a slightly awkward position for me because if I’d thought about it immediately before publication and I’d picked up on the significance of it I think I’d have probably put it in the report.’

This oversight not only threatens to undermine one of his report’s key conclusions, which was that he had ‘no reason to doubt’ Thompson’s version of events. It is also potentially damaging for BBC Chairman Chris Patten, who has been aware of Pollard’s self-confessed error for some time but has only just demanded an explanation 

Pollard’s confession — the latest twist in this long and winding saga — has been reported by James Harding’s old paper, The Times. And Harding knows all about the Savile scandal – including who knew what, and when – because The Times covered it extensively when he was editor. It has continued to do so since Harding left in December 2012. And ‘the paper of record’ is not alone: over the last nine months, the holes in the Pollard Report have been variously reported by the Spectator, the Mail on Sunday, the Telegraph, the Sunday Times, the Sun, the Evening Standard, the Press Gazette and Private Eye, and by the irregular press.

The broadcast media have been active, too. Well-respected, tenacious (and even left-leaning) journalists like Paul Mason and Michael Crick, both of Channel 4 News, have been digging. There has also been a parliamentary question and two Culture, Media and Support Select Committee hearings on the subject. Nonetheless, the BBC has been struck dumb by a story that most other outlets — and many parliamentarians — evidently see as a significant part of one of the darkest scandals in the BBC’s history.

Leaving the BBC’s prolonged silence to one side, Mr S is also intrigued by the fact that MediaGuardian has not (with the exception of a Roy Greenslade column about the Pollard affair in March) shown any interest in the Pollard story. There has not been a single mention of it anywhere on The Guardian website or in the paper. The idea that this intrigue is not of interest to The Guardian, which studies the media in more detail than any other paper, is frankly laughable. Is MediaGuardian, which once regarded itself as the industry’s noticeboard, not remotely curious about what is going on here? Or is this further proof, if proof were needed, that certain things are beyond reproach to the denizens of King’s Place?

And what of James Harding, who seems to have become as forgetful as Nick Pollard since he joined the Beeb? Harding told his staff on Wednesday:

‘Our response to Savile and McAlpine should not be that we shy away from investigative reporting and the coverage of difficult issues. In fact, we must renew our commitment to curious, inquisitive journalism in the public interest.’ 

Mr Steerpike could not agree more. Even if the Guardian won’t touch it, isn’t it time to address this ‘difficult issue’, Mr Harding?

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  • e2toe4

    I’d bet no ‘old school’ journalist could have believed it when the failure to show an interviewee a pic of the person they were naming to check that THIS was in fact the person they were naming, was revealed as the whole thing unravelled.

    The issues are not simply that Newsnight off-shored a core competence, ie making investigatory journalism, to a less than competent organisation.

    But that this organisation was intimately connected to a university which may have blurred the lines between ‘training students’ and supplying unpaid worker battalions to companies to do their story finding in the brave new world of internet trawling, FOI creation and data sifting.

    One of the dirty secrets the journalism industry doesn’t often discuss, and this includes the usually ‘right on’ tv and press and the rest, and this may explain some of reticence about discussing the case.

    But the reason for the widespread use of interns and ‘trainees’ is not simply one of rapacious capitalism…or not entirely so.

    The industry is in a crisis that will at some stage start claiming titles, in the regions some evenings are already going weekly and circulations continue to contract while ‘monetising’ the web is so far just going to prove the ‘How do you create a great little web news company?” question and answer; “Start with a massive traditional news company.”

    Although of all news businesses the BBC ought to have the resources to conduct important investigations inhouse — although perhaps in this Newsnight case, someone may have thought the ‘Not us, Gov…some previously reputable agency …..’ defence may have been useful.

    Were that the case then it proved as sad a miscalculation as most other aspects of the whole handling of the Savile case.

    The way our libel laws served to provide weaponry for the likes of Savile, to intimidate the press, as it did for Robert Maxwell and others, shows that in all aspects of dealing with it, and learning from it…and doing something meaningful about it, we need joined up thinking.

    Having untrained students doing a job they haven’t the skills to do because no-one can afford trained journalists, being shown the door in their thousands, from an industry disappearing before our eyes.

    Then using something like phone hacking, which as we see already has the law of the land to control it; to push for even more draconian libel laws in which getting the story right will not provide any defence against having to pay all costs, including the vexatious litigants, for an industry already struggling against massive internet disruption, that, as we can see provides a vital function, is madness.

    ‘Savile’, and this BBC will serve a useful function if in the unravelling of it all it serves to shed some light on the pernicious effects and costs of being one of the world’s most onerous regimes where the libel protection offered to the rich stifles free speech more effectively than any number of more repressive countries.

    And it illuminates the way in which the culture of zero hours work and unpaid training posts is fuelled not only by the rapacious press and media barons (and barons of many other rapacious business sectors) but by the activities of the education industry in fashioning their students into suitable material to service this culture, and creating structures to help it along. This may be another reason for The Guardian and BBC to find reasons not to peer too hard at this.

    The education industry may not mean to do this, the designers of the Titanic and it’s captain did not mean to sink their ship…but sink it did all the same, and if ‘Savile and the BBC’ serves to allow the threads of the various threats to Journalism at present to be properly drawn together and to be followed to their various ends it may be of some benefit.

    After all the Spectator mainly repeats and comments upon the ‘news’ others produce, and does a great job of it; and of course twitter and the other social networks act as interested spectators, often reheating and then debating the news endlessly.

    But no news, and no protection from draconian laws, may mean that with nothing to look at one eventually has no spectators either………… Here’s to some proper joined up thinking, and hears to ineptitude in the BBC for providing an excuse for some.

  • Eddie

    The thing is, this peedy-hysteria seems very selective and in a non-logical way. Elvis dated a 14 year old Priscilla; Charlie Chaplin liked em young; and as for writers, Byron dated a 12 year old boy and Dostoevsky wrote of being ‘stimulated’ by an 11 yr old girl at a bath house.
    I dislike the way the image and work of those branded by the mob and/or the law is excised from our culture – no plays on BBC Radio for Gary Glitter on Jonathan King. Why not? It’s silly and, ironically, childish – and more to the point, it’s pointless (as if it helps anyone).
    If the worst peedyfile ever had written great songs or books, they would still be that. The present puritanical Bowdlerism is absurd.

  • ninoinoz

    “Let’s start with holding people to account. In the offices of our
    local radio stations and regional TV operations – the places where the
    BBC does so much of its best work”

    Local radio stations like BBC Radio Norfolk, for instance?

  • Graham Barker

    ‘…Mr S is also intrigued by the fact that MediaGuardian has not (with the exception of a Roy Greenslade column about the Pollard affair in March) shown any interest in the Pollard story. ‘

    How much ad revenue does the Guardian get from the BBC?

    • David Booth.

      The Guardian seems to have cornered the market on advertisements for job vacancies at the BBC and local government post.

  • D Whiggery

    There’s no such thing as lying or cover-up these days. One just doesn’t recollect or simply overlooks, there is all manner of room for unintentional and unfortunate error. This method has been so perfected that public or private inquiries might as well not exist.

    I blame Clinton.

    • James Strong

      Come on.
      How about Nixon for cover-up and Reagan for not remembering?
      But, leaving the partisanship aside, hasn’t it long been the case that, for people high enough up the ladder there is no price to be paid for errors or deceit? They are just moved sideways or given a pay-off to leave.
      Lower down in an organisation it’s the sack.

      • D Whiggery

        I’m not trying to be partisan, I just think that it only became generalized to all levels of management after Clinton. However, I accept your other examples

  • Pip

    The BBC is a biased left wing Pro EU Propaganda machine, corrupt, dishonest and unfit for purpose just like Westminster, and should be privatised or closed forthwith.

  • Rtd Colonel

    But without the Market rate BBC execs what would happen to the lawyers, think of those poor lawyers who else would feed them

  • Bill Brinsmead

    Get a grip Steerpike – Paul Mason is more than left-leaning, he is a self proclaimed Marxist.

    • Swiss Bob

      Much like Red Andy (Marr) and all those working on Newsnight.

  • Peter Stroud

    The BBC and Patten’s BBC trust are both completely corrupt. The way they have conspired to protect Thompson is disgraceful. And the way gross amounts of licence payer’s money was paid to Pollard for a flawed report, is an utter scandal. Yet the government has done nothing yet to improve matters. The BBC and the BBC Trust need to be completely reorganised. Patten should be sacked forthwith. The man is useless.

    • Pip

      Patten has always been a useless tool of the Political Class.

      • salieri

        and also a political tool of the Useless Class

        • Kennybhoy


        • Pip

          Euphemistically and ironically called ‘useful idiots’ by some.

  • JunkkMale

    Tomorrow is the deadline for any submissions on “The Future of the BBC’ parliamentary select committee.

    They may find input such as this of value:

    “we should play to that particular strength: accountability journalism” – especially when Lord Patten also rather clearly has stated that while this may apply to what the BBC does with others, it certainly doesn’t happen back. A bit too ‘uniquely’.

    “Strange though it may seem, Pollard neglected to mention Boaden’s account in his report. He has since recognised that this was an error” – No refunds though? A bit like the licence fee when one finds Newsnight & BIJ concoct news on Lord McAlpine along tribal wishful-thinking vs. professional integrity journalistic lines.

    “There has not been a single mention of it anywhere on the Guardian website or in the paper” – Yet they do seem to inform so much else, daily, the other direction, despite a public ABC representation that may be seen as less than significant.

    “who seems to have become as forgetful as Nick Pollard since he joined the Beeb?” – There’s a lot of it about on the top floor. Beyond astounding uncuriosity, the whole market rate lot of them seem to have early onset Alzhiemers at the drop of, ironically, a piece of accountability.

  • toco10

    The Guardian has a daily circulation of 250,000 and falling but the BBC gives this fringe leftist rag more air time than any other newspaper.This is only one of the reasons the BBC stinks and why there should be an impartial review of its overt leftwing political bias.Patten for one is long overdue for removal.

  • John Clegg

    The Guardian and the BBC, well yes, I lump them both together. I don’t mind the Guardian because I can choose to ignore it and more to the point, I don’t have to pay for it.
    However, the BBC is a different matter, I resent with my whole being the fact that I and others like me have to pay for its left leaning, pro Arab, pro immigration, and pro climate change drivel.

    • salieri


    • RoadrunnerNick

      You don’t have to pay for the BBC. I no longer have a working television set and no longer buy a television licence. One can always view on the catch-up service later.

      • monty61

        Me too. Got rid of the telly years ago. Still got to put up with the Today programme though, and Eddie Mair is out of control on PM turning it into 5 Live …

      • Pip

        That’s hardly the point, the point is we shouldn’t have to do that.

        • John Clegg

          Well done, Pip. This is exactly my point.

        • RoadrunnerNick

          True. I was merely flying the flag for a viewers’ strike and hitting the Beeb in the pocket.

          • John Clegg

            That’s something I would love to do, the trouble is, you and I would probably be the only ones left exposed and end up in court with the rest caving in and paying. Solve that problem and I’m with you.

      • Druth

        It not about you or your tv, its about the metro/left using the ‘impartial’ state broadcaster and public (my) money to fund ‘hearts and minds’ campaigns. Not having a tele doesn’t stop me from having to listen to the ‘informed commentary’ of the idiots whom the BBC spoon feeds their politics.

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