'Exhausted' BBC comms call to Brunswick over Savile not 'optically acceptable'

An 'exhausted' BBC comms team was forced to reverse its decision to call in Brunswick at the height of the Savile crisis because it was not deemed 'optically acceptable', according to the Pollard Review transcripts.

Paul Mylrea: Keen to bring in Brunswick
Paul Mylrea: Keen to bring in Brunswick

The transcripts of the interviews with BBC staff, which were published on Friday, shed more light on how various parts of the corporation handled the crisis last autumn.

Details of Jimmy Savile’s wrongdoings were being reported by ITV amid media questioning over whether the BBC’s own ‘Newsnight’ investigation into Savile had been canned because of pressure from the higher echelons of the BBC (which Pollard concluded was not the case).

The transcript of Pollard’s interview with Paul Mylrea, the BBC director of public affairs who called in Brunswick, shows Mylrea was keen to bring in an ‘external perspective’ to help an overstretched comms team with the issue.

Mylrea called David Yelland at Brunswick on 16 October but the decision was reversed a week later, according to the Pollard Review.

Mylrea told Pollard that an instruction had come from the BBC Trust 'that it was not optically acceptable for a public sector organisation to hire external support’.

The chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, made it clear in his own interview with Pollard he was against Mylrea’s move.

Patten slammed the comms operation in October as ‘chaotic’ and described engaging with Brunswick as ‘not a good idea’.

'I thought that to have David Yelland – who is actually a very nice guy and one should not hold against him the fact he was once editor of The Sun – being trooped through the newsroom at the BBC to brief the director-general, that seemed to me to be a seriously lousy story.

'Secondly, more explicitly, you will know that one of the first questions that select committees ask – they didn't in George Entwistle's case – is "who has briefed you for this?" I thought, in my political judgement, that for George Entwistle to have started off by saying he had been briefed by Brunswick and The Sun would not have given him an easy ride.'

Mylrea told Pollard the agency ‘had hardly started’ before ties were cut, with no contract signed and ‘no financial exchange’ between the broadcaster and the agency.

Mylrea explained to Pollard he had been keen to get a second opinion. ‘You need an external perspective that helps keep you on the straight and narrow and gives you somebody else’s perspective,’ he said.

‘I felt we had been reduced in number and we were not being allowed to bring in external support,’ he added.

Mylrea pointed to a comms set-up that ‘was very thin on senior people’, with the team ‘running exhausted by this time’.

This led to 70% of the comms team from BBC Vision ‘stepping up to another level or another job’, to compensate, he claimed.

Mylrea also revealed he was approached by 26 companies offering crisis management at the time.

Brunswick’s team would have been led by Yelland, agency partner and former editor of The Sun, according to evidence submitted to Pollard.

Mylrea said that Yelland had provided ‘a sort of first think piece’ on things to be considered.  

However, Yelland reiterated to PRWeek a statement he provided to The Guardian three days ago. He said: ‘For accuracy Brunswick at no point advised the BBC and nor did I. We were not fired as we were never hired or even met with them. They called us but that was it.'

PRWeek revealed earlier this month that Mylrea will be leaving the broadcaster later this year.

His departure follows the appointment by incoming director-general Tony Hall of former Labour minister James Purnell into a new role overseeing comms and strategy.

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