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Inquiry slams BBC managers over Savile probe response

By Laura Smith-Spark and Jonathan Wald, CNN
December 19, 2012 -- Updated 1502 GMT (2302 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: BBC Trust: There were serious failings in editorial oversight and management control
  • Review finds no evidence of cover-up in decision to shelve Jimmy Savile investigation
  • The BBC's deputy director of news Stephen Mitchell resigns over the matter
  • Hundreds of claims of sexual abuse by the late TV star have emerged since October

London (CNN) -- A BBC program's decision to drop an investigation into sex abuse claims against one of its former program hosts doesn't appear to have been a cover-up, a report on the matter said Wednesday, but there were major flaws in the move.

The head of the inquiry, Nick Pollard, said the decision by the show's editor to shelve the story late last year -- taken shortly before the BBC broadcast tribute shows devoted to the late Jimmy Savile -- was seriously flawed.

Read more: Who was Jimmy Savile?

But he had even sterner words for senior BBC News managers, saying leadership "seemed to be in short supply" when revelations about Savile subsequently emerged in October of this year.

"The decision to drop the original investigation was flawed and the way it was taken was wrong, but I believe it was done in good faith. It was not done to protect the Savile tribute programmes or for any improper reason," said Pollard, a former head of Sky News.

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"In my view, the most worrying aspect of the Jimmy Savile story for the BBC was not the decision to drop the story itself. It was the complete inability to deal with the events that followed."

The management system was "completely incapable" of dealing with the crisis, he said, and his report "shows that the level of chaos and confusion was even greater than was apparent at the time."

The evidence gathered by the Newsnight journalists last year should have been passed to police, Pollard said.

The then-Newsnight editor who shelved the story, Peter Rippon, "made a bad mistake in not examining the evidence properly," he added.

Pollard said e-mails he studied had also revealed there was "knowledge, not just rumour," within other parts of the BBC "about the unsavoury side of Savile's character" at the time the tribute shows were planned.

Allegations of sexual assault and rape against Savile, who was a household name in Britain for decades, were first aired by rival broadcaster ITV in October. A slew of other claims followed.

Read more: How celebrity child sex scandal has rocked the BBC

Police believe Savile, who died in October of last year at age 84, sexually abused hundreds of young women and girls in past decades, with some offenses committed on BBC premises.

Lord Patten, the chairman of the BBC Trust, which oversees the BBC, said it accepted all the findings and recommendations of the report and would act on them.

The crisis claimed the scalp of BBC Director General George Entwistle, who resigned at the height of the furor over the BBC's handling of the Savile affair. It broke only weeks after he took the top role at the broadcaster.

Acting Director-General Tim Davie said that Stephen Mitchell, deputy director of news, had resigned Wednesday in light of the report. He will not be given a severance package.

Read more: Ex-Scout tells of abuse at hands of TV presenter Jimmy Savile

While critical of BBC management, Pollard told a news conference there was no "fundamental undermining of the BBC's journalism."

He added that he believed an apparent drop in public trust in the broadcaster, revealed in a survey released Monday, would be short-lived.

The BBC Trust said it welcomed the report's finding that no "inappropriate managerial pressure" had been involved in the decision to shelve the Newsnight investigation.

"Nonetheless, it is clear that there were serious failings in editorial oversight and management control that now need to be met with concerted action by the BBC."

As an immediate response, Newsnight will be given a new editorial leadership team.

Changes will also be made in the way stories considered to be "high risk" are managed.

The total cost for the Pollard Review will be close to 2 million pounds ($3.2 million).

It's the first of two major independent inquiries set up by the British public broadcaster after the scandal.

Savile hosted popular BBC children's TV programs, including "Jim'll Fix It" and "Top of the Pops." He was also well-known for his philanthropy, which raised millions of pounds for charity, and he was awarded a knighthood.

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His targets were apparently mostly girls in their midteens in what authorities have described as alleged abuse on an unprecedented scale.

As of last week, police said 450 people had come forward with information relating to Savile, mainly alleging sexual abuse.

Savile is a suspect in 199 crimes, including 31 allegations of rape, London's Metropolitan Police said.

An eighth suspect was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of sexual offenses in connection with a police inquiry into claims against Savile and others, dubbed Operation Yewtree.

The man, who is in his 70s and from London, has not been named.

Photos: The life of Jimmy Savile

The furor over the BBC's handling of the original Newsnight investigation was compounded by its decision to broadcast a Newsnight probe last month into claims of abuse at children's homes in Wales.

That program led to a former senior Conservative politician, Lord McAlpine, being falsely named on Twitter as a child abuser. The BBC apologized and has paid compensation. Other individuals who repeated the libel via Twitter still face legal action.

An internal review of that Newsnight investigation, led by Ken MacQuarrie, reported back last month. It concluded that the program's production was marked by a series of "unacceptable" failures.

The BBC Trust responded separately to the MacQuarrie review Wednesday with a series of damning conclusions.

It said the "broadcast allegations were not based on sound evidence and had not been thoroughly tested," leading the audience to be misled in a "serious failure of BBC journalism."

The resulting false identification of Lord McAlpine was "a grave breach which had been costly to all concerned," the Trust said.

"This was a high-risk report which required rigorous supervision and did not receive it."

A second major inquiry set up to look into the culture and practices of the BBC during the decades Savile worked there is ongoing.

The BBC has also set up a review of its policies and procedures relating to sexual harassment, in light of allegations about past misconduct. It is headed by senior human rights lawyer Dinah Rose.

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