Two former Newsnight staffers were vindicated by their peers last week for a story that nearly never saw the light of day.
Liz MacKean and Meirion Jones were named joint winners of the London Press Club scoop of the year prize this week despite the fact that their story revealing Jimmy Savile was a serial sex attacker was shelved.
At the time, in December 2011, Newsnight editor Peter Rippon said the decision to spike the story was taken because the journalists had failed to show institutional failings on the part of the police for not pursuing the allegations against Savile.
The news that the story had been suppressed by the BBC was broken by Miles Goslett for The Oldie magazine in February 2012. And the news that Savile had abused girls at a children’s home, based on testimony from victims, was eventually broken in the mainstream media by Mark Williams-Thomas in a documentary for ITV.
Williams-Thomas had worked with the BBC on the original Newsnight Savile report.
In a highly unusual move, Williams-Thomas and Goslett were named joint winners of the scoop prize.
Williams-Thomas said: “These are two of the best journalists this country has. For them, the most important thing was for the truth to be out there.”
The Pollard Review into the affair has revealed that Jones and MacKean tried to persuade managers to run the story and that warnings the BBC would face claims of a cover-up went unheeded.
In evidence to the Pollard Review, Jones said he told his Newsnight boss: “If you don’t run it, the consequences for the BBC are going to be disastrous, absolutely disastrous, because all those people out there will be saying you knew he was a paedophile, you ran the tributes knowing he was a paedophile. How could you do that? We trust the BBC.”
Asked whether Jones saw the prize as a vindication for his work, he told Press Gazette: “We’ve had that recognition from most of the journalists in the BBC and outside the BBC from the start.
“Hopefully this award will help persuade the few people who still think it wasn’t a story, that it was right to pull it and that it was right for the tributes to go ahead. Hopefully they will think again.”
Major management failings have been identified by the BBC as behind the twin disasters on Newsnight of the failure to run the Savile story in December 2011 and then the decision to run a report which falsely implicated Lord McAlpine in child abuse in November last year.
Does Jones believe the BBC has learned the lessons and made the necessary changes?
He said: “It’s early days. We’ve got new leadership and I’m hopeful that they will address those problems of communication and leadership and all those things.”
Asked whether he considered walking away from the BBC when the Savile story was spiked, he said: “Obviously.”
He added: “You do have to think can you carry on working there after that’s happened? But the vast majority of people at the BBC are good journalists and they were on our side rather than the small number of people who made these terrible mistakes.”
Despite Jones and MacKean being vindicated they both decided they could no longer work on Newsnight.
MacKean took voluntary redundancy from the BBC this month after 20 years with the corporation. And Jones took the decision to move across to Panorama, adding that a report in Private Eye saying that he was forced out of Newsnight was untrue.
Speaking at the Stationers’ Hall awards ceremony on Wednesday, MacKean said: “It goes to show that you can’t keep a good story down. It’s probably fair to say that BBC command and control would not be delighted by this award being given to Meirion and myself.
“Even though they’ve now got their heads back on, they’ve still failed to acknowledge that the BBC should have run this story. Congratulations to Mark Williams-Thomas and to Miles for eventually doing that.”