PRWeek TV: BBC reaction to Savile case 'incredibly slow'

The BBC's director-general George Entwistle has 'failed' in his handling of the Jimmy Savile scandal, PR professionals have said.

Police are now pursuing around 120 lines of inquiry into the late BBC star and celebrity fundraiser following widespread allegations of sexual abuse of youngsters.

In this week’s PRWeek podcast, former GMTV producer Martin Frizell called the reaction to the scandal, which followed an ITV programme airing the accusations nine days ago, ‘incredibly slow'.

Frizell - now executive director of media at GolinHarris - questioned the lack of public and media access given to Entwistle and BBC Trust chairman Lord Patten, who broke his silence on Wednesday to call the scandal ‘a cesspit’.

Phil Hall, PHA Media chairman, added it would be difficult for the broadcaster to get on the ‘front foot’ now that a police investigation was under way.

Hall said: ‘They have to let the police investigation take its course. Communications should now be coming out of the police force. For me, they lost the opportunity at the very beginning to say "we’re going to be investigating and take control of this".’

BBC Response

The BBC, invited but was unable to attend the podcast, has issued a response to some of the issues raised. Paul Mylrea, BBC director of communications, said:

'People claiming the BBC was ‘slow’ are missing the key point. For five days, the BBC faced a – successful – pre-transmission publicity campaign from ITV about its Exposure programme. The BBC was not given access to the programme ahead of time and therefore did not have the full details of the investigation.

 Therefore, the first opportunity to respond was once the documentary had been shown. Immediately, the BBC, at the highest level, contacted the police, who are the right people to lead a criminal investigation, to offer full and total co-operation. The police – rightly – advised immediately that the BBC should not mount an internal investigation until they had finished for fear of contaminating evidence or prejudicing their enquiries. We confirmed that publicly and made it clear that when the police were satisfied for us to do so we would launch a full and independent review of any outstanding issues at the BBC.

 The key thing for the BBC has been to ensure the senior management are focussing on addressing this terrible set of allegations and ensuring the victims are heard. Our communications are focused on ensuring that the media are kept across the actions the BBC is taking every step of the way.  

 To that end the BBC’s Director-General gave a pooled interview on the Today programme that was syndicated to all TV and radio outlets that requested it on Monday this week.  Prior to that, the BBC’s Director of Editorial Policy and Standards David Jordan has appeared on BBC News, ITV, Channel 4 and Five News.  The BBC Chairman also gave a lunchtime briefing to representatives of all national newspapers at a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch on Wednesday and followed this with a series of broadcast interviews.

 Some of the coverage is clearly driven by a lack of understanding of the independence of BBC news – an independence that has consistently allowed BBC journalists to hold the BBC fully to account. That misunderstanding may be driven by the fact that such a rigid distinction between the news operation and the corporate centre does not exist in the print media. But it is a distinction that has allowed BBC News  to investigate the BBC on matters of taxation, pay and of course the competition scandals of the noughties.

 As public relations professionals, we will continue to do what is right – but first, what is right for the victims of these horrific allegations. If people want to call us slow, so be it. But I would rather be slow and right, than fast and loose.'


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