Could the anti-BBC witch hunt over Jimmy Savile be payback for the Leveson Inquiry?

The BBC has serious questions to answer, but there were other institutions that allowed Jimmy Savile to commit his atrocities, too.

The unravelling of Jimmy Savile's reputation, from marathon-running-charity-friend-of-royalty to creepy-predator-of-teenagers, continues at an alarming rate. As more victims bravely come forward to tell the stories they felt unable to reveal when their tormentor was still alive, the list of questions has continued to grow.

Central to the failure to protect children from Savile has been the behaviour of his employers at the BBC. Was it an institutional failure? Was it simply that the superstar would be believed rather than his young victims? Or was it that the corporation's behaviour reflected the prevailing culture of the time? And, so many years later, why was a Newsnight investigation into Savile shelved?

It is not just the BBC which has questions to answer. Why was Savile allowed so much unrestricted access to children and adults through his work with various charities and institutions? What exactly was his role at Broadmoor secure hospital?

There is, however, a slight undercurrent to some of the coverage of this very human tragedy, of dozens of young lives affected by the enormity of one man's behaviour. It's hard not to get the sense that some scores are being settled.

It's not a massive surprise that the BBC's natural enemies in the press have appeared to take a somewhat distasteful relish in these individuals' deeply moving tales of abuse and recovery. This is, after all, one step beyond a simple excuse to bash the BBC - perhaps there is a suggestion that this is payback for Leveson, for the way in which the corporation ran so prominently the stories about misconduct and misbehaviour in the press.

Little wonder, then, that the Daily Mail is calling for Leveson to look at the BBC for examples of press misbehaviour rather than somewhere closer to Northcliffe House. Little wonder the Mail's Richard Littlejohn, in a flight of fancy, imagines that Savile would have been a star witness at Leveson.

Other stories have been printed, too, in the pages of the BBC's natural enemies, about another deceased DJ, John Peel, and about Dave Lee Travis. It is a narrative that depicts the BBC in times gone by as a house of sleaze, a place where a culture was allowed to exist that let predators thrive.

The Leveson backlash has been in preparation for some time. The chilling effect will stop bold, important newspapers doing what they do best and getting to the truth, we are told. The tabloid press will be restricted in its bid to hold the powerful to account, it is insisted. And to put it into context, a monster like Savile would be allowed to get away with it, as Rupert Murdoch suggested.

But the failure to catch Savile was not just a failure of the BBC and the other institutions who allowed him to commit his atrocities against young people for decades. It was an all-around failure, across the board, with journalism taking some smaller share of the blame.

Investigative journalism failed to unmask this predator during his life, partly because of fear of libel, but partly because journalists weren't looking. Savile was a powerful figure who dazzled all around him with his good charity deeds, and the press were no different.

And were Savile's victims just as fearful of not being believed by the newspapers as they were by the authorities? Who spoke for them? And who looked after their interests? It wasn't the fearless tabloid press who claim to be so fearful of the post-Leveson future.

All that said, several young people had their lives affected, and were deeply traumatised by what Savile did. It cheapens the bravery of those victims, and cheapens the seriousness of the situation, to use these terrible events to score points against one side or another.

So while the long-term opponents of the BBC do their cause no favours by using these crimes to take aim, it is important that opponents of (for example) the Daily Mail aren't blinded either. Some of what we are seeing may all be agenda-driven, and it may not be happening for benign or even journalistic reasons, but it is happening, and the end result is vital. The most important thing of all is to get to the truth, regardless of how we get there.

And the BBC has serious questions to answer.

Jimmy Savile. Photograph: Getty Images
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Expressions of sympathy for terror's victims may seem banal, but it's better than the alternative

Angry calls for "something to be done" play into terrorists' hands.

No sooner had we heard of the dreadful Manchester Arena bombing and before either the identity of the bomber or the number of dead were known, cries of “something must be done” echoed across social media and the airwaves. Katie Hopkins, the Mail Online columnist, called for “a final solution”, a tweet that was rapidly deleted, presumably after she remembered (or somebody explained to her) its connotations. The Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson wanted “a State of Emergency as France has” and “internment of thousands of terror suspects”, apparently unaware that the Nice attack, killing 86, happened after that emergency was declared and that nobody has been interned anyway.

It cannot be said too often that such responses play into terrorists’ hands, particularly if Isis was behind the Manchester bombing. The group’s aim is to convince Muslims in the West that they and their families cannot live in peace with the in-fidel and will be safe only if they join the group in establishing a caliphate. Journalists, striving for effect, often want to go beyond ­banal expressions of sympathy for ­victims. (It’s a mistake I, too, have sometimes made.) But occasionally the banal is the appropriate response.

Pity begins at home

Mark Twain, writing about the “terror” that followed the French Revolution and brought “the horror of swift death”, observed that there was another, older and more widespread, terror that brought “lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty and heartbreak”. The first, he wrote, we had been “diligently taught to shiver and mourn over”; the other we had never learned to see “in its vastness or pity as it deserves”.

That is true: more children across the world die each day from hunger or disease than could ever be killed in a terror attack. We should not forget them. Nor should we forget that the numbers killed in terrorist attacks in, for example, Baghdad far outnumber those killed in all European attacks of our times combined. In an age of globalisation, we should be more cosmopolitan in our sympathies but the immediacy of 24-hour news make us less so.

When all is said and done, however, pity, like charity, begins at home. We naturally grieve most over those with whom we share a country and a way of life. Most of us have been to concerts and some readers will have been to one at the Manchester Arena. We or our children could have been present.

Cheers from Highgate Cemetery

What a shame that Theresa May modified the Tory manifesto’s proposals on social care. For a few giddy days, she was proposing the most steeply progressive (or confiscatory, as the Tories would normally say) tax in history. True, it was only for those unfortunate enough to suffer conditions such as dementia, but the principle is what counts. It would have started at zero for those with assets of less than £100,000, 20 per cent for those with £120,000, 50 per cent for those worth £200,000, 99 per cent with those with £10m and so on, ad infinitum. Karl Marx would have been cheering from Highgate Cemetery.

Given that most people’s main asset – the value of their home – did not have to be sold to meet their care costs until death, this was in effect an inheritance tax. It had tantalising implications: to secure their inheritance, children of the rich would have had to care for their parents, possibly sacrificing careers and risking downward mobility, while the children of the poor could have dedicated themselves to seeking upward mobility.

The Tories historically favour, in John Major’s words, wealth cascading down the generations. In recent years they have all but abolished inheritance tax. Now they have unwittingly (or perhaps wittingly, who knows?) conceded that what they previously branded a “death tax” has some legitimacy. Labour, which proposes a National Care Service but optimistically expects “cross-party consensus” on how to finance it, should now offer the clarity about old age that many voters crave. Inheritance tax should be earmarked for the care service, which would be free at the point of use, and it should be levied on all estates worth (say) £100,000 at progressive rates (not rising above even 50 per cent, never mind 99 per cent) that yield sufficient money to fund it adequately.

Paul Dacre’s new darling

Paul Dacre, the Daily Mail editor, is in love again. “At last, a PM not afraid to be honest with you,” proclaimed the paper’s front page on Theresa May’s manifesto. Though the Mail has previously argued that to make old people use housing wealth to fund care is comparable to the slaughter of the first-born, an editorial said that her honesty was exemplified by the social care proposals.

On the morning of the very day that May U-turned, the Mail columnist Dominic Lawson offered a convoluted defence of the failure to cap what people might pay. Next day, with a cap announced, the Mail hailed “a PM who’s listening”.

Dacre was previously in love with Gordon Brown, though not to the extent of recommending a vote for him. What do Brown and May have in common? Patriotism, moral values, awkward social manners, lack of metropolitan glitz and, perhaps above all, no evident sense of humour. Those are the qualities that win Paul Dacre’s heart.

Sobering up

Much excitement in the Wilby household about opinion polls that show Labour reducing the Tories’ enormous lead to, according to YouGov, “only” 9 percentage points. I find myself babbling about ­“Labour’s lead”. “What are you talking about?” my wife asks. When I come to my senses, I realise that my pleasure at the prospect, after seven years of Tory austerity, of limiting the Tories’ majority to 46 – more than Margaret Thatcher got in 1979 – is a measure of my sadly diminished expectations. l

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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