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
Photo: Getty
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Peter Hitchens on Twitter seemed barely human – then he came round for tea

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me.

But what about Peter Hitchens?” everyone is asking after my last encounter with him. He came round to the Hovel, you see, the day before the column, in which I said all sorts of nasty things about him, appeared. The reason why he came round is complicated and boring, but suffice it to say that books were exchanged, in a spirit of mutual diplomatic tension.

I offered him a choice of red wine, whisky, or tea. It was five o’clock. (He was punctual, which unsurprised me. He chose tea; he is not a fan of intoxication. Aha! I thought, he’ll love this: as a foe of modernity in many of its aspects, such as duvets and central heating, he will appreciate the fact that I do not use tea bags. Loose Assam leaves, put into a scalded teapot. “Conservative in everything except politics” was a formulation – originally, I think, applied to George Orwell – that Peter’s late brother was fond of, and I thought my old-fashionedness would soothe him.

Not exactly: he noticed I was pouring semi-skimmed milk into the mug. Of course you put the milk in last when you are using tea bags. When pouring from a pot, you put the milk in first. Milk poured in afterwards does not emulsify satisfactorily. If you are one of those people who say “but how do you know if you’ve put in the right amount of milk?” then I exhort you to start trusting your pouring arm.

Semi-skimmed milk, I learned quickly, is a no-no in the world of P Hitchens.

“But Orwell himself,” I replied urbanely, “said that milk that was too creamy made the tea taste unpleasant. Not, of course, that I believe everything Orwell said, but on tea-making he is sound.”

Mr Hitchens demurred, saying that Orwell was referring to the equivalent of what we know today as Gold Top. This allowed me to go off on a little rant, a positive, life-enhancing rant, about how good Gold Top is, how my children love it, etc. We moved into the living room. I noticed my shoes were more old-fashioned than his. Come to think of it, they may have been older than him. They’re almost certainly older than me.

There was a mood of civility in the air. Slightly strained, perhaps, like his tea, but unmistakably present. Part of the reason was that I had mentioned our forthcoming meeting on a social medium, and two of my friends, one a well-known novelist, the other a well-known columnist, both women, both left wing, had asked me, extremely sincerely, to pass on their best wishes. They knew him of old, had worked with him, were fond of him. These are two women whose opinions I take very seriously indeed. The Peter Hitchens I knew, of column and Question Time panel, was clearly not the whole picture. If these women say he’s Basically All Right, or All Right enough to ask me to pass on their best wishes, then that is pretty much good enough for me.

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me. I was becoming increasingly conscious that, the next day, in newsagents throughout the land, the latest edition of this magazine would appear, and in it, on page 82, would be a column by me, which contained several jokes at the expense of P Hitchens, Esq. And I knew that this column would not escape his vigilance. I massaged the bridge of my nose and launched into a pre-emptive apology. “I think I had better tell you...”

He seemed to take it fairly well, though I’d not given him the full nature of my assault. When we were tossing insults back and forth on Twitter, he seemed barely human; now, in my living room, he all too clearly was. I suppose this is how we all see our enemies on Twitter: as botched versions of the Turing Test, spouting opinions that are quite clearly wrong in spite of all our well-reasoned arguments. The only variable is how quickly the arguments de-evolve into base invective. I have my own theory about this. It involves Lacan, so I’ll spare you.

A couple of days later I received an email from him, courteously asking after me and my latest troubles, the ones I can’t write about due to their immensity. It also contained the precise quote from Orwell regarding milk in tea. (“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.” You have to love that “ninthly”.) “Tempus mutatur,” I replied... but noted, too, that there was no mention of That Column. I was rather impressed. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear