Whistleblowers will be deterred from speaking out to the BBC after the corporation “abandoned” Jimmy Savile abuse scandal source Karin Ward.
This was the warning from former BBC Newsnight producer Meirion Jones after Freddie Starr lost his libel action today against Ward.
She was sued over comments she made to the BBC and to ITV News and over a broadcast on Channel 4 News.
But she had to defend the case on her own without the assistance of broadcasters. And she could only afford legal representation when David Price Solicitors took the case on a on a no-win-no-fee basis.
The refusal of BBC and ITV/ITN to support her from the outset has been condemned by Ward as a "shameful indictment of the way large corporations deal with vulnerable people".
The BBC offered to make a contribution towards Ward’s costs days before the trial started.
But according to Jones, who originally approached Ward for Newsnight, this was too little, too late.
He told Press Gazette: “I believe that if the BBC had supported Karin Ward as they should have done from the beginning, Freddie Starr would never have pursued this absurd libel case.
“The BBC is directly responsible for putting Karin Ward through all this pain.”
Ward was the first source to go on camera with allegations that Jimmy Savile had abused her, for a Newsnight investigation in November 2011.
This interview was spiked by BBC management only to be used for the Panorama documentary – What the BBC Knew – which was broadcast in October 2012.
Ward said that the Newsnight interview was used by Panorama without her permission.
In the BBC interview, Ward said she was groped in a BBC dressing room in 1974 but did not name Starr.
In the interview for ITV News, she repeated the allegation and named Starr.
She said she thought the ITV journalist was building up a dossier, and did not know her words would be broadcast.
But she told the High Court: "I am not prepared to apologise to the claimant or retract what I have said, because I have told the truth about him."
Starr launched his legal action against Ward in September 2013.
Ward made her first request for help from the BBC on 18 October 2013.
Under BBC editorial guidelines, the corporation explicitly states that it will stand by contributors if they are sued for libel provided they did not act maliciously. There has been no suggestion Ward acted with malice.
Her repeated requests for help were ignored by the BBC and ITV.
Press Gazette understands that ITV did not even cooperate with Ward's defence.
On 21 May 2015, Ward's solicitors wrote to BBC director general Tony Hall urging him to explain why the BBC was not standing by Ward.
On 12 June 2015, three days before the trial was due to begin, the BBC offered £85,000 towards Ward's defence costs.
Jones, who no longer works for the BBC, said: “Karin Ward was brave enough to tell the truth about Freddie Starr, and more importantly about Jimmy Savile, yet the BBC abandoned her when she was sued for appearing on the Panorama programme 'Jimmy Savile: What the BBC Knew'.
“This is a very bad precedent and will frighten off whistleblowers from going to the BBC, and raise concerns about why the bosses left her in the lurch. It will intensify suspicions that this was a cynical move in the hope the courts would find Karin Ward was a liar, so they could pretend the original decision to suppress the Newsnight Savile investigation was justified. “
Starr is now facing a costs bill unofficially estimated at around £1m.
David Price Solictors said in a statement: "Karin has not been supported by the BBC and ITV/ITN in defending the defamation action brought by Freddie Starr, nor have they provided the full indemnity that she sought from them at the outset of the case. This is despite being forced to defend their journalism and the significant contribution she made to the exposure of Jimmy Savile as a paedophile."
Ward said: "This should never have happened; it is a shameful indictment of the way large corporations deal with vulnerable people. I was left entirely on my own to find someone to represent me in this case and to deal with everything without the support I was entitled to.
"For anyone who hasn’t yet dared to come forward, I say do not take this case as a reason not to do so; stand tall, it wasn’t your fault and you have a right to be heard without fear or threat of not being believed. You may have had no voice and no choice when you were younger but now you do. Don’t give in to bullies."
Senior associate at David Price solicitors Helen Morris said: "I have never come across a case where a source has been abandoned by a publisher or broadcaster to defend a libel claim on their own. It is particularly egregious for the BBC and ITV/ITN to have done so when Karin Ward put her head above the parapet to speak out about Savile.
"At the time that Karin was approached by the BBC, she was suffering from advanced bowel cancer, was undergoing chemotherapy and was facing surgery from which she thought she would not survive. She agreed to take part because she believed that Savile deserved to be exposed. Karin has had the support of the individual journalists who worked on the Newsnight and Exposure programmes.
"In their evidence during the trial, they said that she had done a great act of public service in being the first victim of Savile to speak out and that her actions had resulted in 500 victims of Savile coming forward. Without sources like Karin, there is no investigative journalism. On any view, Karin has been treated disgracefully by our national broadcasters, who continue to refuse to fully indemnify her."
A BBC spokesperson said: "We note that Mr Starr himself brought the allegations into the public domain and sued Ms Ward over various publications including several reports by ITV naming Mr Starr and online material by Ms Ward which were made before BBC Panorama in October 2012.
"As a contributor to BBC output, the BBC offered to help Ms Ward with a contribution to her legal costs before the trial and remains willing to discuss a fair contribution to her costs, if these cannot be recovered from Mr Starr as ordered by the court.”
A spokesman for ITN, the company which produces ITV News, declined to comment.
Karin Ward was sued by Freddie Starr over eight publications:
- Libel – an account Karin wrote of her life on a website called ‘FanStory’
- Slander – an interview Karin gave to Liz MacKean for Newsnight on 14 November 2011
- Slander – an interview Karin gave to Mark Williams-Thomas on 2 October 2012
- Libel – Channel 4 News broadcast on 8 October 2012
- Libel – ITV’s This Morning on 10 October 2012
- Libel – ITV News on 1 November 2012
- Libel – BBC’s Panorama on 22 October 2012
- Libel – an eBook written by Karin called ‘Keri Karin: the shocking true story of a child abused continued’.
In her initial e-book she referred to Savile and Starr as JS and F. She was approached by Newsnight in 2011 after producer Jones found her book online and realised it related to Savile.
According to her lawyers, during filming of her first Newsnight interview she was told the broadcaster would not identify Starr. Despite this Panorama subsequently broadcast the footage and identified Starr.