An under-reported moment at the press conference into Jimmy Savile’s sickening reign of abuse within the NHS came when report author Kate Lampard suggested a ‘less intrusive press’ (her words) might have been one reason why he managed to get away with it. An interesting point that, perhaps, devotees of ‘Hacked Off’ and politicians championing a Royal Charter to regulate the press ought to ponder.
The truth, however, is more complex.
As the editor who was legally thwarted from exposing Savile back in 1994, the reality is that it was a disastrous combination of Britain’s draconian libel laws (generally so beloved of celebrities with unsavoury secrets and lawyers well aware of ‘star-struck’ juries), victims intimidated by Savile’s celebrity status and powerful connections plus police indifferent to (or themselves intimidated by) allegations against the rich and powerful to investigate properly that conspired to protect Savile and other VIP abusers.
In the case of Jimmy Savile, I was introduced by a contact to two former residents of the now-infamous Duncroft approved school for girls ‘patronised’ by Savile under his charity ‘champion’ cloak of respectability. Both had been regularly abused by him, mainly during ‘treat’ trips away from the institution to the BBC and elsewhere. Their motive in speaking to the Sunday Mirror? Not money, they weren’t seeking payment. By now in their mid-30s and, in one case, happily married with young children, they wanted to see Savile exposed, triggered by gushing media coverage of his charity fundraising activities and high-profile friendships with Prince Charles, Princess Diana, Margaret Thatcher and a personal audience with the Pope.
Questioned exhaustively both told a compelling, convincing, consistent and credible account detailing their under-age encounters with Savile and the complicity of at least one Duncroft staff member in his activities.
But they were also intimidated by Savile’s power and the recollection of how he’d frequently threatened them never to confide in their families or friends, with the added warning that they’d never be believed anyway because of his power and influential connections. It was a threat that lingered on critically when I had to explain that if we published their story, Savile would inevitably sue and they would face a gruelling cross-examination in the witness box. Neither retracted their accounts, but the husband of one convinced her not to press ahead because he didn’t want her to face that ordeal or their children to learn about their mum’s past via the inevitable media coverage of such a sensational case.
The other promptly lost her nerve at the prospect of going it alone. But in light of what we now know about Savile’s industrial scale of abuse, using his celebrity status and charity champion reputation was the perfect cover. Her words remain etched in my memory: ‘Who will believe me against Jimmy Savile with all his connections to Charles and Diana and Mrs Thatcher and the Pope. They’ll destroy me, even though I’d be telling the truth’. These words serve as a powerful testament to the recurring pattern of Savile’s abuse across so many institutions, his destruction of so many young lives and his ability to cow so many victims into silence during his lifetime.
Unable to run the story without witnesses willing to risk going before a jury (at the time libel juries tended to be star-struck and reluctant to find in favour of tabloid newspapers against celebrity plaintiffs), I did at least alert police to the Savile allegations, only to be met by ‘it’ll be a waste of time’ disinterest.
There was a modicum of consolation for me a few years later when, as a board member and communications director of a prominent children’s medical research charity, a global bank who supported the charity suggested bringing Jimmy Savile on board as an ‘ambassador’ in light of his ‘iconic image’ as a charity fundraiser. Behind closed doors I was able to alert the managing director to what I knew about the real Jimmy Savile and the idea was killed stone dead.
Every editor, of course, regrets the good stories that somehow ‘got away’. But for me the Savile saga and others involving powerful sex abusers of children are the ones that really hurt-and haunt.
At the Sunday Mirror, for example, we twice tried to expose Tory grandee Sir Peter Morrison over his importuning of young boys in public lavatories and elsewhere. Morrison, a flamboyant Old Etonian barrister MP from an aristocratic political dynasty, was (like Jimmy Savile) a particular favourite of Margaret Thatcher who made him deputy chairman of the Tory party, a junior minister and the role of her ill-fated campaign manager when she tried to hang on as party leader and prime minister in 1990.
During the early and mid 90s we were alerted by police sources outraged that Morrison had been arrested but not prosecuted over his proclivities, in one case blatantly pulling rank and demanding to see very senior officers. Subsequently, to the chagrin of young arresting officers, no charges were brought and the paperwork associated with Morrison’s arrest ‘disappeared’. For the sake of their careers, our young police sources dared not go public, leaving us with only one longshot option, confronting Morrison and trying to get a confession. Inevitably, the seasoned lawyer branded it all ‘fantasy’ and issued dire legal threats. But how times change…with some Tory grandees, including Lord Tebbit, now acknowledging how Mrs Thatcher had been warned of rumours about Morrison’s activities even before she made him the party’s deputy chairman.
Mrs Thatcher’s former Scotland Yard personal bodyguard, DCI Peter Strevens (sic) now acknowledges he told the PM face to face about the persistent rumours about Morrison and under-age boys before she appointed him deputy chairman. While, in her autobiography, former minister Edwina Currie described Morrison as a ‘noted pederast’ with a well-known ‘liking for young boys’. (Yes, that’s the same Edwina Currie who, as a junior minister, supported Mrs Thatcher’s bright idea of giving Jimmy Savile the keys to Broadmoor in what now must seem to so many victims as the ultimate case of putting a dangerous lunatic in charge of the asylum).
Finally, back in the 80s when I was a senior executive on the News of the World, we ran a carefully-lawyered but damning story of Gary Glitter’s grooming of a besotted schoolgirl fan. We also passed on fuller details to the police….yet once again the reaction was one of disinterest and neither the girl nor her parents were even contacted. Another frustrating irony, given this week’s 16-year sentence on the 70-year-old paedophile pop star and close pal of Jimmy Savile.
For the reasons above, I’ve become a media adviser to some child sex abuse survivor groups and longstanding campaigner for Theresa May’s overarching inquiry into multi-institutional child sex abuse failures and cover-ups to be put on a statutory footing which the Home Secretary has –belatedly-done. It is hard to disagree with Liz Dux, the lawyer representing many of Savile’s victims, when she criticised this week’s reports into Savile’s abuse at Stoke Mandeville and other NHS locations by saying: ‘It beggars belief that a report which has revealed Savile was widely known as a sex pest can find no evidence of management responsibility when ten victims reported being assaulted.’
For so many victims of Savile and other abusers, in high and low places, alive or dead, the only hope of justice can come with the truth being dragged, screaming and shouting, out of the shadows and exposed to the revelatory light of public scrutiny. And their best chance of that rests on a truly transparent and fearless statutory inquiry with the power to compel witnesses to appear and face questioning under oath, and undaunted by wealth, power or fame.
Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster and PR consultant whose career has included editing the Sunday Mirror, deputy editor of the Daily Mirror and News of the World. He is a member of the Society of Editors and co-author of the book, ‘After Leveson’ and has given evidence to Dame Janet Smith’s BBC inquiry into Jimmy Savile and to police inquiries into Savile and other alleged VIP paedophile investigations.