Almost a year ago, the BBC dropped a Newsnight programme that would have publicly revealed that Jimmy Savile was abusing young girls while he was an employee of the BBC, including at times on the premises of the BBC, and while working on television shows specifically aimed at children.
The Editor who dropped the programme said that factors against pursuing the story were that Savile was dead and unable to defend himself, the nature of the allegations and the level of proof required, and the fact the incidents were 40 years ago. He said it was ultimately dropped because they could not establish any institutional failure by the police or the CPS.
The BBC did not pass on the evidence that it had gathered about Savile to the police. The Editor who dropped the programe says that this was because they were confident that all the women they spoke to had contacted the police independently already, and that they had no new evidence against any other person that would have helped the police.
There are at least five things wrong with the BBC’s response to this.
Firstly, and most importantly, the BBC let down the victims of Savile who had courageously spoken to them. These vulnerable women had trusted the BBC to take seriously the complaints that they were making, after decades of not being taken seriously by anybody else in authority.
Secondly, if the BBC had broadcast the programme, it would have encouraged other victims of Savile to also have the courage to speak out. This predictable consequence has been shown to be the case by the aftermath of ITV later broadcasting the same story.
Thirdly, the BBC had a conflict of interest. They were only interested in establishing institutional failures by the police or the CPS. But the claims included child abuse on BBC premises, by a BBC employee, who was working on programmes where he had access to children. They should also have been looking at their own institutional failures.
Fourthly, the BBC knew about Savile’s reputation, both because of ongoing rumours among other BBC employees, and also because they knew that complaints about Savile had gone beyond rumours, and that the police had questioned Savile about some of these crimes.
Also, the BBC itself had broadcast a programme in 2000 in which Louis Theroux had specifically asked Savile about allegations that he was a paedophile. That programme concluded with this astonishing exchange between Theroux and Savile:
Louis: So, why do you say in interviews that you hate children when I’ve seen you with kids and you clearly enjoy their company and you have a good rapport with them?
Jimmy: Right, obviously I don’t hate ’em. That’s number one.
Louis: Yeah. So why would you say that then?
Jimmy: Because we live in a very funny world. And it’s easier for me, as a single man, to say “I don’t like children” because that puts a lot of salacious tabloid people off the hunt.
Louis: Are you basically saying that so tabloids don’t, you know, pursue this whole ‘Is he/isn’t he a paedophile?’ line, basically?
Jimmy: Yes, yes, yes. Oh, aye. How do they know whether I am or not? How does anybody know whether I am? Nobody knows whether I am or not. I know I’m not, so I can tell you from experience that the easy way of doing it when they’re saying “Oh, you have all them children on Jim’ll Fix It”, say “Yeah, I hate ’em.”
Louis: Yeah. To me that sounds more, sort of, suspicious in a way though…
Jimmy: Hard luck.
Louis: …because it seems so implausible.
Jimmy: Well, that’s my policy, that’s the way it goes. That’s what I do. And it’s worked a dream.
Louis: Has it worked?
Jimmy: A dream.
Fifthly, the BBC has repeatedly reported on institutional failures within the Catholic Church regarding child abuse by priests, including by priests who are now dead and where the abuse took place as long ago as some of the abuse by Savile. They have a responsibility to answer the same questions about themselves as they rightly ask the Catholic Church to answer.
This story should not be primarily about Jimmy Savile. It should be primarily about finding ways to vindicate the rights of the victims of the abuse, then about identifying anybody else directly or indirectly involved in the abuse, and then about the institutional response of the BBC to the abuse itself and to the abuse becoming public.
Finally, and ideally, this could become an opportunity for vulnerable people who have been abused in other institutions than the BBC to come forward and to finally be listened to. And any institutions, whether religious or secular, that have behaved unethically towards victims of abuse should take the initiative themselves and voluntarily do the right thing for the victims of the abuse.