The ‘butterfly effect’ and the crisis at the BBC

By Kevin Bloom 24 October 2012

The British Broadcasting Corporation has weathered other scandals during its long history, but none as severe as the Jimmy Savile affair, a sordid case that involves allegations of a paedophile ring. With its director general battling to answer the questions of a parliamentary committee, public confidence in the Beeb is at an all-time low. And the storm only looks like getting worse. By KEVIN BLOOM.

As with most reputation-destroying scandals, the debacle that may well annihilate the credibility of the British Broadcasting Corporation has its roots in mundane details which, in other circumstances, would barely have caused a stir. The Profumo affair, for instance, began with a lover’s tiff, and soon escalated into one of the most explosive scandals in British political history. Likewise, the series of events that eternally sullied News Corp’s name started with what appeared to be the actions of a single “errant” journalist at the News of the World.

In chaos theory, it’s called the “butterfly effect”—where a small change at a certain place in a deterministic system can result in large differences to a later state. The scientific metaphor is simple and elegant: a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, resulting in a tornado in Texas. 

In the BBC’s case, that butterfly appears to be one Peter Rippon, who began his career with the broadcaster as a trainee reporter in 1989. A journalist who won numerous awards for his organisation, including a Sony Gold for interactivity in 2007, Rippon was promoted to editor of BBC Two’s Newsnight programme in November 2008. By all appearances, his continued ascendance through the ranks seemed a fait accompli.

Then, in early October 2012, Rippon wrote a blog to explain why his show had dropped an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse against Jimmy Savile. If you searched for the blog on 23 October, you wouldn’t have been able to access it. This was partly because the BBC’s top executives felt that it was “inaccurate or incomplete in some respects,” but mainly because the broadcaster’s director general, George Entwistle, was on Tuesday facing questions from a UK parliamentary committee on what he really knew about the original Newsnight investigation. 

At which point the brewing tornado takes in the character and personality of Sir James Wilson Vincent Savile, OBE, KCSG, an English disc jockey, television presenter and media personality who was best known during his lifetime (Savile died in October last year, at age 84) for hosting both the BBC television show Jim’ll Fix It and the BBC music programme Top of the Pops.

To the BBC’s credit, on Monday night it aired for the first time, via its hard-hitting current affairs programme Panorama, an interview Newsnight had filmed last November with Karin Ward, an ex-pupil at a school for girls in Surrey.

“Ms Ward said she had been abused by Savile and recalled seeing Gary Glitter, now a convicted paedophile, having sexual intercourse with a girl from the school in Savile’s dressing room,” BBC News reported on Tuesday, adding that Ms Ward, who was battling cancer at the time, had been angered when Newsnight did not air the original interview.

“I’d gone through all that stress when I really needed to concentrate on getting well, and then they never used it—because somebody higher up didn’t believe me,” she said.

Of course, the key question that members of the Commons Culture Committee wanted answers to on Tuesday concerned the extent to which Entwistle, and by implication the entire BBC senior management, knew of Rippon’s decision to can the Newsnight investigation. Before the MPs gathered, British journalists were all asking some variation on the following: was Rippon subjected to pressure from his BBC superiors? Did the Jimmy Savile tribute that was scheduled for airing on the BBC over Christmas have any connection to the show being ditched?

In the event, Entwistle told the MPs that blame for the decision not to broadcast the Newsnight investigation must be heaped on Rippon alone. The director-general denied that he had personally failed to show leadership, and said to the MPs: “The system failed.” 

But there were other factors causing the wind to whip up to gale force—like the fresh allegations of a cover-up that appeared in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday morning, just a few hours before Entwistle’s public appearance.

“The Daily Telegraph has learnt that a series of emails sent by the BBC reporter Liz MacKean to an unnamed friend were blocked from featuring in a Panorama investigation into the BBC’s treatment of the scandal, which was broadcast last night,” the report began.

“In one, sent on Nov 30, she described how Peter Rippon, the Newsnight editor, was having a ‘panic attack’ about the affair. He allegedly told Ms MacKean it was ‘a very long political chain’.” 

Time to declare a tornado warning and evacuate the premises? Perhaps.

Thing is, while Monday night’s Panorama programme was a smart and well-timed move to calm the storm, it doesn’t look too good that the BBC’s lawyers blocked information from airing on the very same “mea culpa” platform. Sure, we now know—because the Beeb has told us—that Jimmy Savile targeted both boys and girls for sexual abuse, and that when victims came forward no action was taken. We also know, thanks to Panorama, that there are serious allegations of a paedophile ring operating at the broadcaster. And yet, what don’t we know?

Although Entwistle acknowledged to MPs on Tuesday that Savile’s behaviour had been possible only because of a “broader cultural problem” at the BBC, he claimed there was still insufficient evidence to say whether or not abuse was “endemic”. Then, in an apparent attempt to further batten down the hatches, the BBC announced on Tuesday afternoon that nine allegations of sexual harassment regarding current BBC staff and contributors were being investigated.

None of which changes the fact that Entwistle struggled, later in the parliamentary proceedings, to answer questions about his prior knowledge of the dropped Newsnight report, and about why he did not make more inquiries into Rippon’s investigation.

If it emerges in the coming weeks that the director general knew more than he is letting on—and on that score, Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph expose doesn’t augur well—the punishment meted out by the British government could be severe. After all, it’s not as if Prime Minister Cameron is philosophically opposed to crippling publicly funded institutions.

Also, as with the News Corporation scandal, which started in the United Kingdom and soon moved like a tsunami across the Atlantic, the effects of the Savile case are now being felt in New York. Mark Thompson, Entwistle’s predecessor at the BBC, is due to take over as chief executive of the New York Times in November—but the newspaper’s public editor is now asking questions about what he knew and when he knew it, arguing in a blog this week that his “integrity” is under question. Already, Thompson is having to deal with his own contradictory statements in the British press, one saying he was aware of the Newsnight investigation (Thompson was director general at the time the show was canned) and the other denying all knowledge.

As police prepare to make their first arrests, the storm doesn’t look like letting up. And with a Conservative MP comparing Entwistle to James Murdoch, the magic ingredient that will make it all go away—a restoration of British public confidence in the credibility of the BBC—appears with each passing day a more remote prospect. DM

Read more:

  • “Jimmy Savile: BBC’s lawyers blocked emails on decision to drop Newsnight expose,” on the Daily Telegraph

Photo: Floral tributes and a piece of turf mark the spot where the headstone was removed from the grave of British television star Jimmy Savile at a cemetery in Scarborough, northern England October 10, 2012. The late BBC TV star at the centre of a child sex scandal that has shaken Britain’s state-funded broadcaster, may have abused up to 25 victims some as young as 13 over four decades, police said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Phil Noble


While we have your attention...

An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.

Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.

Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.

The Interview

Patricia de Lille: ‘I’d give myself 8/10 as Mayor of Cape Town’

By Rebecca Davis

JK Rowling is no longer a billionaire due to the amount of money she has donated to charity.