Three days after finishing work on Panorama documentary The Fake Sheikh Exposed, producer Meirion Jones was told his services were no longer required by the programme.
His previous job as head of investigations at Newsnight had been filled in his absence. He was effectively out of a job.
- July 28, 2021
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After 26 years at the BBC, Jones (pictured above, Reuters) felt like this career at the corporation had come to an end and he was being squeezed out.
Jones believes he was punished because he tried to expose the Jimmy Savile scandal at the BBC and spoke out about the way his Newsnight investigation of December 2011 was suppressed.
Liz MacKean, who worked on the Savile story with Jones, left after 23 years with the corporation in April last year. She also felt she no longer had a future with the BBC.
Speaking out in detail for the first time since he left the BBC in February, Jones paints a picture of a corporation which appears to have failed to learn the lessons of the biggest scandal in its history.
He believes those on the side of exposing the Savile scandal mistakes have been sidelined and encouraged to leave the corporation – while others involved in suppressing the Savile story have kept their jobs.
Jones says of his decision to leave the BBC: “I went to an employment lawyer. He said if you sue the BBC you will win and there will be no cap on it because it will be a whistleblower case.
“However it will take a year and the BBC will settle on the steps of the court. Do you want to put yourself through a year of that?
“I thought about it and I thought I'll take voluntary redundancy and go in that case.”
It was an ignominious end to a distinguished BBC career.
In 2010 he won the Daniel Pearl Award along with MacKean for exposing how oil company Trafigura dumped toxic waste in Africa.
His investigation into bogus bomb detectors sold to Iraq and Afghanistan with Caroline Hawley led to an export ban on the devices and a fraudster selling them to be jailed. It may have saved hundreds of lives by helping to get the useless “magic wand” devices taken out of circulation.
There are many more such examples, most recently the RTS award-nominated investigation into former News of the World reporter Mazher Mahmood broadcast last December.
Jones believes that all his scoops counted for nothing because in the eyes of some senior figures at the BBC he is a traitor.
“People said they won't sack you after Savile but they will make your life hell. Everyone involved on the right side of the Savile argument has been forced out of the BBC.”
Jones and MacKean were voices of dissent inside the BBC about the way their Jimmy Savile investigation for Newsnight came to be spiked. They spoke out to both the Pollard investigation and to colleagues who made a Panorama documentary called Savile: What the BBC Knew.
This was broadcast in October 2012, three weeks after ITV’s Exposure documentary finally revealed Savile was a serial sex offender.
Jones believes that Tom Giles, the Panorama editor behind “What the BBC Knew”, was also “squeezed out” of the corporation as punishment for a documentary which made uncomfortable viewing for BBC bosses.
In May 2014 Giles was moved from Panorama to a strategy role, described as creating a “blueprint to shape BBC Current Affairs for the future”. In May this year, he left the BBC to become controller of current affairs for ITV.
Jones says: “He was effectively told he wasn't going anywhere.”
He says that the Panorama on Savile “was very unpopular with management and very controversial. Lots of efforts were made to block that Panorama.
“Threats were made that if Liz and I co-operated we'd never work for the BBC again. All sorts of attempts were made to stop Panorama using our emails and material.”
Former BBC director of global news Peter Horrocks was put in charge of Savile coverage as the scandal unfolded in October 2012.
According to Jones, he “forced the programme through” and has also since been “squeezed out of the BBC”. He left the corporation earlier this year to head up the Open University.
MacKean told Press Gazette: “I didn’t feel encouraged to stay. I felt I would do better to work outside the BBC.
“There were still so many people who have been shown to be on the wrong side of the story who have stayed."
Jones says: “The last conversation I'd had with anyone from management was ‘we'll see if we can find something’.
“I wasn't going to be parked in some non-job. The BBC is quite happy to pay people to do nothing. That's not me. That's no fun.
“There is still sadly a small group of people at the BBC who think that the only problem with Savile was that it was exposed and if had stayed hushed up everything would be fine.”
According to Jones, one senior BBC executive stood outside Broadcasting House at the height of the Savile scandal and held forth to colleagues about Jones and MacKean, describing them as “traitors to the BBC”.
He says: “It's a small group of people but they are very powerful people who think we betrayed the BBC by not keeping out mouths shut.”
The Newsnight editor who took the decision to spike the Savile investigation, Peter Rippon, remains at the BBC and was moved sideways to become editor of the BBC online archive.
Helen Boaden, who was head of news at the time the Newsnight Savile report was suppressed, was moved to the equally senior job of head of radio.
Her deputy, Steve Mitchell, took early retirement after the Pollard report into the Savile scandal was published in December 2012.
James Hardy, the BBC head of communications for BBC News who said in an email to a colleague he would “drip poison” about Jones remains in his role. He suspected Jones had leaked stories about the Savile affair to the press in early 2012. This is something Jones emphatically denies.
Earlier this month, the original source for the Savile story – Karin Ward – won her libel case after being sued over comments she made to the BBC and ITV about Freddie Starr.
The BBC declined to offer her any financial support until the eve of the trial, leaving her to fight the case alone with the help of lawyers acting on a no-win, no-fee basis.
Jones believes the BBC reluctance to stand by Ward “shows anyone who was on the side of blowing the whistle about Savile the BBC have failed to support".
“It's an extraordinary thing for the BBC not to support a whistleblower who had appeared on a BBC programme. That's unprecedented as far as I know.
“Yet they left her hanging out in the wind for two years, I believe in the hope that she would be discredited in court. In fact the judge believed her totally.”
Had Ward lost her case, Jones believes the BBC would then have been able to say: “Peter Rippon made the right decision, he didn't feel her testimony could be relied on and that's been borne in court.
“I know that sounds like a conspiracy theory, but with everything that's happened I believe it.”
He adds: “If I was a whistleblower I would not go to the BBC now unless they announce a big change in their policy."
Newsnight investigation began days after Savile's death
Jones was led to the Savile story partly through a piece of luck. His aunt ran Duncroft School in Surrey, a secure approved school, and he saw Savile there 1970s. He recalled his parents having concerns about Savile’s access to teenage girls and his aunt saying: “It’s just Jimmy.”
Questions about Savile were aired by Lynn Barber in a 1990 interview for The Independent on Sunday when she asked him about the rumours he was “into little girls”.
The questions were raised again by a Louis Theroux in a 2001 documentary.
Then in early 2011, Ward published an autobiography on the website FanStory – which talked about abuse perpetrated by “JS”.
Jones says: “It was an absolute description of Duncroft as I'd known it. Ninety nine per cent of what she was describing there I knew.
“I'd seen Savile taking girls out in his Rolls Royce… Who is going to believe there was a place that's half jail and half country house?
“It was a mad, mad place. I knew all that was true, knew they'd gone to BBC. I only had a little bit more to believe.
“Anyone else would have thought she was a fantasist.”
Savile died on 29 October 2011, and the following Monday Jones began work on the Newsnight investigation.
Ward agreed to do an interview and the Newsnight team tracked down around 60 women who had attended Duncroft, and around dozen had stories about what happened to them.
They declined to go on camera, but agreed to have their stories told. One (who was not abused) gave an interview about incidents she had witnessed.
“By the time the story was pulled I thought we would end up with 100 victims and maybe ten institutions around the country…
“Sometimes you have arguments with your editor about whether you should do a story or not and its 55 one way and 45 the other.
“This was absolutely overwhelmingly that we had to do the story for so many reasons. It wasn't close. We were all absolutely convinced that this was a huge story.
“It went out to impact team at the BBC. They said it would be going out on every domestic outlet. It would be huge. They were gearing up to run packages on all radio programmes, on the news channel, the whole thing was gearing up for this massive impact.
“There was no question about the scale of this. The BBC knew this was a big story.
“When we got confirmation that the police had investigated him and interviewed him, he [Peter Rippon] said: ‘Right, we broadcast.’”
Broadcast was set for 7 December.
Then, on 1 December Jones was informed by Rippon that it would only be a story if it could be shown that the Crown Prosecution Service had erred by declining to charge Savile because he was too old. According to the Pollard report, this apparently followed a conversation between Rippon and Steve Mitchell.
After ten days of arguments between MacKean, Jones and Rippon, the final decision to kill the story was taken by Rippon on 9 December.
As Mitchell and Rippon were mulling whether or not to pull the Savile story, the BBC was promoting a Christmas schedule which included tributes to Jimmy Savile and a Boxing Day special edition of Jim’ll Fix It presented by Shane Richie.
Jones says: “Two trains were hurtling towards each other on the same line, the BBC either had to run all these tributes or it had to run the expose, it couldn't run both.”
Jones was confident that the story would come out anyway, because outside consultant Mark Williams-Thomas had all the evidence and could simply take it elsewhere (as he did with the ITV documentary which was aired in October 2012).
Jones is now writing a book about his time at the BBC and working as a freelance journalist.
He says: “I’m adjusting after a very long time at the BBC to not just being paid for being there.”
While he emphasises that there are “thousands of bloody good people” at the BBC, he also criticises what he describes as “a culture of presenteeism”.
“People just stay at the BBC and occupy desks. I’ve always wanted to do stuff that makes a difference, stories that shake things up. I don’t really see the point of just sitting there and doing nothing.
“I’m afraid there a lot of people that do that. There are a lot of great people at the BBC, but there a lot of people who are just filling desks.”
Outsiders sometimes wonder why, with around 5,000 journalists, BBC News does not break more stories.
Jones says: "That’s what I’ve always tried to do at Newsnight. It amazes me how little story-breaking there is.”
Why is that?
“It’s a deep-rooted culture of caution and also fear of putting your head above the parapet. If you do break stories you will get sued, you will get attacked in Parliament by people whose interests you have offended.
“There’s also a committee-itis at the BBC. There are committees and committees and committees. New Broadcasting House is full of those offices that are made fun of in W1A. They really exist. There are dozens of offices booked solid for meetings all day long every day.
“Everything is bogged down in meetings. People are promoted on the basis of how well they perform at meetings rather than on the product they produce.”
In general terms, Jones says the BBC is “shockingly badly managed”. But he adds: “To be fair it always has been from the time I’ve been there, from the 1980s onwards – its just badly managed in different ways.
“The main problem is that you don’t have a flat enough management structure. Managers are too far away from the output.”
He also says that the management structure is “very confused”, with Panorama, for instance, reporting in to managers in television, news and current affairs.
Asked what he thinks could change at the BBC to make it a more effective news organisation, he says: “Measure people by their output”.
“They always talk about encouraging original journalism but people are not rewarded for that. Not getting into trouble is a way of getting promoted. If you break stories the chances are you going to cause trouble. It’s the civil service element of the BBC.
“Because it’s such a large organisation. To some extent it works like the civil service in that you will inevitably rise if you don’t blot your copybook.”
Jones worries that Panorama under current editor Ceri Thomas has moved away from investigations and towards analysis.
The BBC is currently in the process of making all the programme’s staff reporters redundant, instead looking to make use of journalists from elsewhere in the BBC on a project by project basis.
Jones says: “If you are taking other reporters who happen to be in the building if they are good they don’t have enough time to do the Panorama properly because there are so many other demands on them.
“Or you get people who are not very good whose departments are happy to release them for as long as you want.”
Looking to the future, Jones believes the BBC should set up a dedicated investigations team to break stories: “If I was them I would put together a strong investigations unit of a dozen people and put real pressure on them to come up with stories.”
Press Gazette put Jones’ criticisms to the BBC.
A spokesperson said: "Meirion Jones has made his views known before and we have always been clear that nobody was forced out of the BBC for exposing the Savile scandal.
“The Pollard Report concluded, following a detailed investigation, that the decision to drop the initial investigation into Jimmy Savile was taken in good faith and not for any improper reason.”
They also pointed out that the BBC has already put forward plans to make the management structure “simpler and leaner”.