Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary behaves better than the BBC over Savile

Sir Peter Fahy's report for Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary on how much police knew about Savile before he was exposed as a sex offender in 2012 was published at midnight.

But embargoes copies were sent out to journalists before that, allowing them to write stories for this morning's papers. Some even tweeted the findings in the small hours of this morning.

That, you might think, is pretty remarkable. It is what you do with any report likely to be of wide interest.

But it is certainly not what the BBC did when it published the Pollard Review into its own decision to drop a Newsnight investigation of Savile's crimes.

As Niall Paterson complained on the Sky News site at the time:
The Savile scandal has been a low point, perhaps its lowest ever, but it is not, despite what some BBC critics will say, representative of the whole. 
Which is why the Beeb's handling of the release of the Pollard Review evidence has been so utterly, utterly infuriating. 
First, they chose to dump it on their website this morning, rather than giving it to everyone under what's known as an embargo. 
An embargo means that journalists get sight of a document but promise not to use the information, either in print or on TV, before a certain date or time. 
It allows reporters to spend time digesting and analysing the data, before putting pen to paper - or head in front of the camera. 
Frankly, the BBC would be the first to complain if a public inquiry released its findings without using an embargo, or at the very least a "lock-in" - where journalists are "locked" in a room with the report for a few hours. 
Second, rather than releasing the evidence in plain text or searchable PDF as is usual, they scanned thousands of A4 sheets of paper and uploaded it to their website. 
This perhaps sounds like a petty complaint, but it makes a reporter's life so much more difficult to search for key phrases, to cross reference quotes or details. 
You essentially have to read the entire document - which, when it's more than 3,000 pages, is easier said than done. 
The more cynical person would say this a tactic most commonly used when an organisation wants to make a journalist's life as difficult as possible, or where they hope a few damaging facts get lost in an overwhelming wave of information. 
Third, they released the information on a Friday. 
If you were to ask any member of the BBC's political unit on which weekday a government department would most likely release a critical report in an attempt to bury the bad news, I'm sure you can guess what they'd say. 
MPs have usually left London, as have many other commentators. Newsrooms tend to be moving on to their weekend cover, more than likely utilising fewer staff. And news output on a Saturday, particularly on terrestrial TV, is much less substantial than during the week. 
And fourth, not a single member of BBC staff, including Tim Davie the acting director-general, has been made available for interview.
You can still read all the documents from the Pollard Review on the BBC site. But it is hard not to recall the corporation's original reaction when the Savile story broke:
Whilst the BBC condemns any behaviour of the type alleged in the strongest terms, in the absence of evidence of any kind found at the BBC that corroborates the allegations that have been made, it is simply not possible for the corporation to take any further action.

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