The BBC Panorama documentary, "Jimmy Savile - What the BBC Knew", makes for disturbing viewing. The more than hour long programme is at once both a damning critique of the BBC and a marvellous expression of all that is best about the BBC.
The focus of the documentary is the question of why BBC's Newsnight dropped its investigation into Jimmy Savile. Unfortunately, the programme fails to reach a definitive answer to the question. However, the detailed examination of the issues makes for compelling viewing.
The documentary must also make for highly uncomfortable viewing for senior managers at the corporation. The programme only scratches the surface of the allegations of sexual assaults against Jimmy Savile. Yet it reveals that managers at the organisation had known about such allegations since the early seventies. Senior managers are revealed to have been content with Savile's mere denial.
The programme shows how Savile was able to exploit his position as a BBC star and a famous charity fund-raiser to gain access to vulnerable children. It details how he used his position as presenter on the wildly popular Jim'll Fix It to exploit children. All of this makes for disturbing viewing. Even more harrowing is the interview with Karin Ward, which one watches in the knowledge that Newsnight had taken this from a woman suffering from cancer, and, even though they had independent corrobation, Peter Rippon, the editor, decided to kill the story.
The BBC claim that the story was dropped because it had been about the Surrey Police investigation in 2007 is clearly refuted by the Panorama investigation. Yet, due to the refusal of senior BBC managers to be interviewed, the journalists were unable to ascertain the real reason for the decision. The viewer is left with the suspicion that the BBC was already committed to broadcasting a series of programmes eulogising Savile and an expose of him as a paedophile would have been too embarrassing.
The documentary has already forced BBC senior managers to make a number of corrections to assertions previously made. In the light of the revelations, the BBC has acknowledged that the Newsnight investigation was not into the Surrey Police's handling of the allegations. This admission alone invalidates the BBC's rationale for dropping the Newsnight story, a rationale that had been parroted by the BBC's Director General, the Chairman, and the head of editorial policy.
By the end of the Panorama programme, the credibility of BBC's senior management lay in tatters. The viewers were left with an enigma. The BBC is left with no rationale for pulling the Newsnight investigation. Yet, it had an obvious interest: the reputation of the BBC and the trust that the British public have invested in it. Paradoxically, the broadcast of the Panorama documentary shredded that reputation and undermined the very basis for such trust, yet simultaneously provided a reason to hope for a better BBC; one that can live up to its own ideals and best practices.
The broadcast of Jimmy Savile - What the BBC Knew shows the BBC is not a monolithic entity. It also underlines the importance of who determines the news agenda; the stories that are not told.
Jimmy Savile - What the BBC Knew is an exemplary illustration of all that is best in television journalism.