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.