John McLellan, former editor of The Scotsman and now communications director for The Scottish Conservative Party, offers his reaction to the Panorama investigation into the BBC's decision to can its own investigation into the conduct of Jimmy Savile.
As Rab C Nesbitt might have put it, Jimmy Savile wasn’t just a creep, he was a creep’s creep. No, he was worse than that. Much worse.
Revelation after revelation continues to pour out about his perverted behaviour. 200 alleged victims and counting. It seems everyone who has ever had anything to do with him is falling over themselves to say that they had suspected as such, heard the rumours, couldn’t prove anything, had to keep quiet, etc, etc.
Except now we know there weren’t just rumours; there were real allegations made to the police by real victims. A report was sent to the Crown Prosecution service but without witnesses prepared to testify in court there could be no guarantee of successful prosecution and the case was dropped. (Phone-hacking, Hillsborough, Jimmy Savile? Is there is a pattern emerging here of strangely curtailed police activity?)
We know there was enough evidence for Savile to be quizzed both by police and the BBC. We know now there was even a recording of Savile pestering a young woman to her obvious distress.
As far back as 1980, even I heard the rumours while a student at Stirling, from a flat-mate whose father worked in TV in Leeds. Savile was a well-known pervert but the police didn’t have enough to charge him, he told me. 32 years on and they can only nail him now he’s dead and can’t lie his way out of another inquiry.
Call me miserable, but as a teenager I loathed Jim’ll Fix It. I couldn’t explain why but I just thought he was dreadful and it seems I wasn’t alone. Now commentator after commentator says how disturbing they found his TV persona.
Now we know we weren’t wrong to find his groping of young people on the show disturbing. So why didn’t the producers? How could someone who made so many people feel, at the very least, uncomfortable, manage to maintain a position as national treasure for so long?
Looking back at the footage of his shows, it’s clear the blatant sexism wouldn’t pass today but it now seems it was more than just eccentricity or a lack of political correctness which was tolerated at the BBC.
At least on this occasion we can’t say that illusions have been shattered, as with John Simpson’s claim about Derek McCulloch the legendary children’s radio presenter. Unless we are talking about the illusion the BBC deliberately created, of course.
Admittedly, proof of such behaviour is not easy to come by. Newsrooms are constantly full of rumours about well-known people and their shenanigans, none of it printable.
That’s the stuff you haven’t heard about at the Leveson inquiry. All the stories journalists haven’t printed because they don’t know for sure they are true.
Even those others widely named in the Twittersphere along with Ryan Giggs; Giggs must wonder why he was singled out. Answer? Because thousands of football fans weren’t chanting their names on Match of the Day and so the lawyers ruled that there could still technically be action for breach of whatever privacy they had left.
At least the stories obtained by phone hacking had the advantage of being one hundred per cent true because obviously, the sources were the subjects themselves.
I have long found it ironic that while the most common accusation levelled at journalists is that they make everything up, the biggest inquiry into Press standards has been over material obtained to ensure stories were totally reliable.
So for all the bleatings about an unrestrained Press from the likes of Charlotte Church and Hugh Grant, perhaps we should thank Jimmy Savile for reminding the public there is an awful lot going on they should know is going on but the law makes it virtually impossible to reveal.
We have gone from “how did they find that out?” to “why didn’t they tell us.” Journalists can’t win.
Of course the BBC is now engulfed by a different problem. Newsnight knew about Savile, it had the witnesses but it didn’t broadcast.
Last night Panorama aimed to reveal why in what must go down as one of the most bizarre episodes in modern British journalism.
The comparison in newspaper terms would be an investigation published in the feature pages about why the news department hadn’t revealed the paper’s recently deceased star writer was a paedophile. And that the order not to publish came from the managing director.
Maybe they are onto something; the ratings for last night’s Panorama probably won’t have been as good since Princess Diana (remember the establishment rubbishing stories about her until she turned out to be the source?) revealed all about her marriage to Martin Bashir.
It was certainly a gripping show, if for no other reason than watching one part of such a familiar organisation ripping the rest of it apart. Points of View it wasn’t, and I had to keep reminding myself I was still watching the BBC, so devastating were its criticisms.
There is now little we don’t know about Savile’s depravity, vomit-inducing as Paul Gambaccini described it. But to see reliable old faces like Nationwide’s Bob Langley reveal he witnessed him leaving his caravan with under-age girls showed just how far we have come from the age of TV innocence which allowed people like Savile to get away with what they did.
Listening to victim Karin Ward’s moving testimony with the knowledge Newsnight had corroboration from other witnesses makes it all the more difficult to understand why the investigation was halted. And it was astonishing to hear reporter Liz MacKean accuse the Corporation of misleading the public about the reason.
All that being said, the Panorama team failed to stand up the central allegation: that the probe was stopped because of pressure from senior programmers so a Christmas tribute could go ahead as scheduled.
It is clearly a more than just an embarrassment that the beatification fronted by Shane Ritchie was broadcast by one bit of the BBC when another possessed solid evidence of Savile’s sordid past.
It may yet emerge that such pressure, so far denied, was in fact applied but last night’s show could not firmly establish the link beyond the allegations of the journalists whose work was spiked.
For now, the strongest accusation which can be laid is despite having an on-camera witness, corroboration, a police investigation and a subject who could not sue, the programme editor Peter Rippon simply did not have the bottle to broadcast.
And for a journalist, maybe facing a charge like that is as bad as it gets.
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