November 24, 2012 · 0 Comments
Above: Mark Thompson is in London to give evidence to the Pollard inquiry into the aborted Newsnight programme on Jimmy Savile. Photograph: Felix Clay for the Guardian.
By Dan Sabbagh:
Ex-BBC director general flies to London to appear before inquiry into aborted Newsnight programme on Jimmy Savile.
Mark Thompson has flown to London to give evidence to Nick Pollard inquiry into the handling of Newsnight‘s aborted investigation into sexual abuse by the late Jimmy Savile, taking a couple of days of enforced leave from his new job as chief executive of the New York Times.
The former BBC director general was expecting to give evidence for a couple of hours on Friday, but given the detailed, legalistic approach that the Pollard inquiry is taking, it is not clear how long he will be giving evidence to the “Leveson-style” hearings that are being undertaken at the offices of Reed Smith in central London. It also emerged on Friday that Pollard now expects to complete the inquiry by mid-December, rather than late November.
Thompson is expected to be questioned by inquiry counsel Alan Maclean QC – who advised Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell during the Hutton inquiry – over what precisely he knew about allegations of child sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile, and why he verbally agreed to sending out a legal letter to the Sunday Times in September denying any part in suppressing the Newsnight film.
He also said that he had no knowledge of the Savile allegations until ITV’s documentary on the late Jim’ll Fix It Star aired at the beginning of October.
Thompson has repeatedly said that he did not intervene in Newsnight’s Savile investigation, which he was first made aware of by BBC journalist Caroline Hawley at a Christmas Party a year ago. He then inquired into the status of the Newsnight film and has said he was told by Helen Boaden, the BBC director of news, that because it had been dropped there was nothing for him to worry about.
However, his account altered earlier this month after it emerged that lawyers acting for him had sent a letter to the Sunday Times in early September, threatening to sue the paper for libel if he was accused of editorial interference. Thompson verbally agreed to the letter going out, but says he did not recall ever reading it or if he was shown it. The letter, critics say, implied that Thompson knew more about the Savile abuse allegations that he initially let on.
Advisers to Thompson say the idea behind sending out the letter came from the BBC’s press and legal departments, and that its purpose was only to deny that the director general had exerted any pressure on Newsnight to drop the Savile film. They say that the letter was aimed at reinforcing earlier denials of executive interference in the Newsnight film – and did not imply that Thompson knew more about Savile than previously admitted.
Pollard, the former head of Sky News, said the inquiry has received 40 written submissions and conducted 12 interviews so far, with more to follow. Several thousands documents are involved and more are being provided.
“While good progress is being made, it has become clear that it will not be possible for the review to report, as originally planned, during the second half of November,” Pollard said.
“Taking into account the need for a thorough and fair process, the further interviews planned, the need to consider additional documents and the time required for report preparation, I have informed the BBC that I now expect to provide my report to the BBC by mid-December.”
Former BBC director general George Entwistle, who resigned over Newsnight’s bungled child-abuse allegation against Lord McAlpine earlier this month, is expected to give evidence to the Pollard inquiry on Monday.
Those who have already appeared in front of Pollard include Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman and Kirsty Wark, as well as programme editor Peter Rippon, Boaden and her deputy Stephen Mitchell. Mitchell, one source said, gave eight hours of evidence.
BBC trustee Anthony Fry told the Commons public accounts select committee on Thursday that the Pollard review had now taken on “semi-judicial status”.