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'The Savile Whitewash'? Where Janet Smith's damning leaked review leaves the BBC

By Paul Connew | Media Expert

January 21, 2016 | 6 min read

'The Savile Whitewash' screamed the Sun's front page splash and it's a fair bet that many of Jimmy Savile's victims will understandably see it that way, too.

But the whitewash word is arguably a bit too tough on both the BBC and Dame Janet Smith, the distinguished former high court judge who authored the long-delayed report into Savile's sickening decades of abuse in and around the BBC.

In truth, the Dame Janet Smith Review, or rather the leaked draft report obtained by the controversial investigative website Exaro News and clearly shared with the Sun, paints an excoriating picture of disgraceful failure, neglect and complacency over many years at Britain's national broadcaster. (It may not be a coincidence that Tony Gallagher, the Sun's dynamic new editor, was a guest speaker at an Exaro debate soon after he took the helm of the UK's biggest selling tabloid).

Inevitably, perhaps, controversy erupted over the leaked report with Smith and her team complaining that it was a draft version which was 'out of date and significant changes have been made to its contents and conclusions'.

Really? Well, if that turns out to be the case expect another, even bigger Savile 'whitewash' row to erupt. If the final version – which the Smith Review team promise to release within six weeks – is indeed watered down significantly, it will raise many serious questions.

Not least was there a Chilcot-scale opportunity for BBC executives to object and challenge Smith's initial conclusions and criticisms?

Frankly, it's hard to fathom that the final 'official' version could prove to be anything but a scathing, shaming and hugely embarrassing experience for the BBC and its treasured public trust.

It was significant that BBC spokespeople were initially eager to push the line that this was an unauthorised leak and the final version would be rather different (presumably, spin doctor fingers crossed, meaning less damning?).

But as the impact of the Exaro leak grew, fuelled undoubtedly by the Sun’s powerful front page plus FOUR inside pages, BBC director general Tony Hall, a former media executive, TV news editor and broadsheet newspaper contributor, wisely went personally public to describe the report (even in its leaked draft form) as representing a “dark chapter in the history of the BBC”.

No one could argue with that based on just some of the points highlighted by Exaro and the Sun.

  • Savile abused 45 victims who worked at or visited the BBC
  • Savile abused staff and children linked to his two most famous shows, Jim'll Fix It and Top of the Pops
  • THREE victims were only nine years old
  • Savile flourished in a culture at the BBC where a major star like him was considered 'untouchable' and managers were 'above the law'
  • Even when alarm bells rang, bosses quizzed Savile about his boasts of his interests in young girls but took no action
  • There was 'some evidence' of a paedophile ring operating at the BBC in the 70s, and there was a 'booze culture' at the BBC during this period with some staff afraid that blowing the whistle on Savile's sleazy conduct would damage their career prospects.

Particularly worrying is Smith's warning that another Savile scandal could happen at the BBC and that a culture of secrecy can scare off whistleblowers.

At this point, I should declare an interest as the Sunday Mirror editor legally thwarted from exposing Savile in 1994 and as a witness to the Smith inquiry.

As media adviser to some abuse survivor campaign groups, I know there will be those particularly hurt by Smith's report showing that some famous BBC names, including Nicky Campbell, Esther Rantzen, Andy Kershaw and Sir Terry Wogan, told her of hearing rumours about Savile while a series of top BBC executives insisted they never reached their ears. Her report even quotes presenter Mark Lawson recounting to her the sick 20-year-old ‘joke’: “What do Jimmy Savile and Margaret Thatcher have in common?” Answer: “They both screwed the miners/minors.”

The 'whitewash' accusations naturally being levelled by critics and victims of Savile centre mainly on Smith's failure to name and shame individuals at the BBC.

But here I do have some sympathy for her and the difficult task she faced.

Because so many key figures are no longer on the BBC payroll (or, in some cases, alive) she didn't have the power to compel them to attend or face questioning under oath. This was, in effect, a by invitation review, not a judicial inquiry, and the retired judge and her team relied (perhaps too much) on some witnesses’ willingness to cooperate and be totally candid.

There was also, I understand, the lack of any real paper trail that would have helped her pile enough personal opprobrium on named individuals. To that extent her report and its damning enough conclusions add up to media dynamite, massive embarrassment for the BBC and its reputation but still sell well short the real VIPs in this sordid, shocking, sleazy saga… the scores and scores of scarred, betrayed victims of Jimmy Savile.

For that reason alone, it is crucial that another female judge, justice Lowell Goddard, picks up the baton from Smith and uses her greater powers to dig deeper into the Savile scandal at the BBC (and the NHS and elsewhere) as a key component of her massive over-arching inquiry into historical child sex abuse.

The victims of Jimmy Savile and other abusers, whether from high or low circles, deserve nothing less.

Paul Connew is a media commentator, broadcaster, former editor of the Sunday Mirror, deputy editor of the Daily Mirror and co-author of 'After Leveson'. He is due to be a panellist at an Exaro News debate on 27 January.

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