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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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood