Tories pressured BBC over Johnson’s claim Starmer failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile
The Conservative party put pressure on the BBC not to describe a claim by Boris Johnson that Keir Starmer failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile as “false”, the Guardian has been told.
The allegation made by Johnson in February last year prompted fury, including from within his own party, and he eventually rowed back on the claim.
However, behind the scenes, Conservative party headquarters was pressing the BBC not to describe it as a “false” accusation. The BBC resisted the demand and continued to refer to it in those terms.
The furore first erupted when Johnson accused the Labour leader of “failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile” for child sex abuse more than a decade ago when Starmer was head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). An official CPS report confirmed there was no reference to involvement from Starmer in the decision-making.
After the exchange at PMQs, a senior aide to Johnson quit, saying his intervention was “scurrilous”. Three days later, Johnson backtracked on the claim, saying he was referring to Starmer’s leadership of the organisation at the time of the Savile decision rather than implying he was personally involved.
BBC sources said there had been communication from Conservative campaign headquarters (CCHQ) urging it not to use the term “false”, with points raised about Starmer taking credit for positive records from his time at the CPS.
Sources at other major broadcasters, Sky and ITV, said they were not aware of the same request being made to their editors or reporters.
A Conservative party spokesperson said the requests were part of normal media management and that conversations were professional and courteous. It is understood CCHQ does not consider them to amount to “pressure”.
Despite the requests, the BBC did not change its language and continued to use “false” to describe the prime minister’s comments, including on broadcast bulletins and in online stories, as well as in an analysis by the BBC’s then political editor Laura Kuenssberg.
On BBC Breakfast, the corporation’s now political editor, Chris Mason, said an incident that followed the allegations, where protesters surrounded Starmer shouting out claims that he was “protecting paedophiles”, meant there was now more pressure on Johnson to “say sorry or withdraw his original false allegation”.
Johnson threw the allegations at Starmer during a Commons exchange while he was under the spotlight over the Partygate scandal, saying that while Starmer was director of public prosecutions (DPP), he “spent most of his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile”.
In a clarification issued later, Johnson said: “I’m not talking about the leader of the opposition’s personal record when he was DPP. I was making a point about his responsibility for the organisation as a whole.”
A Tory party spokesperson said there were regular conversations with media outlets. “CCHQ frequently converses with media organisations and shares concerns where we feel duties of accuracy and impartiality are not being adequately discharged. We conduct such conversations on a professional and confidential basis,” they said.
A BBC spokesperson said: “The BBC has reported on all aspects of this story – including the reaction of Boris Johnson to the treatment of Sir Keir Starmer by protesters, and criticism from some Conservative MPs and others linking what happened to remarks made by the prime minister in the House of Commons.”
The revelation that the Conservatives were pressuring the BBC over Johnson’s false Savile claims comes after the Guardian reported leaked emails from 2020 to 2022 showing the BBC coming under pressure from No 10 over the corporation’s political reporting.
One email shows a senior editor informing correspondents that Downing Street was requesting them not to use the word “lockdown” in relation to the shutdown ordered by Boris Johnson on 23 March 2020 – the day the first lockdown was announced.
Another WhatsApp message asked correspondents to “turn up the scepticism a bit” towards Labour after a complaint from Downing Street that the corporation was not reflecting the “mess” of the opposition’s call for plan B Covid measures.
A BBC spokesperson said: “The BBC makes its own independent editorial decisions and none of these messages show otherwise. Like all news organisations, we are frequently contacted by representatives from all political parties.
“Selective out of context messages from a colleagues’ WhatsApp group and email do not give an accurate reflection of the BBC’s editorial decision-making.”
A BBC source said WhatsApp groups were an informal way of sharing information and it was “normal for journalists to have discussions and debates about how material is reported and the language used”.
They added that the BBC had a clear responsibility to its audiences to present the official government advice accurately and there had been no ban on the word “lockdown”.
They said the story in relation to Labour calling for plan B was not, overall, critical of Labour, and that the message forwarded from the No 10 aide was “simply a case of sharing someone’s words with a group of people” and not an editorial instruction.