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
Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses