Jimmy Savile and why the BBC must change

The UK's Jimmy Savile scandal is hugely important. The most popular working class hero is now revealed to be a serial rapist and child-abuser. Yet he was turned into a 'national treasure' by the BBC, which of all the UK's institutions prides itself on 'knowing better'. What was going on? 

Criticising the BBC

Any criticism of the BBC has to begin with the words “I love the BBC of course, but...”. In fact in many ways I do, yet it irks me that there needs to be this disclaimer. I made sure to say, though, during an interesting few days appearing on The Media Show, the Today programme – on its 8.50 am slot alongside Christopher Bland who was Chairman of the BBC’s Board of Governors from 1996-2001 - and eight local radio stations to discuss the Pollard report shortly before Christmas.

I merely wanted to make the point that I personally felt that the BBC’s response to the Pollard Report was, and is, not enough. The Report, commissioned by the BBC, concerned the decision to pull a Newsnight film about the dark activities of the BBC one-time star Jimmy Savile. We have just published a clear, thorough summary by David Elstein, asking questions of it that no one else has asked.

My reasons for saying the BBC has not done enough were and are straightforward, they are:

  1. That the BBC had only been provoked into action on any element of the Savile scandal by outside influences (ITV mainly).
  2. That the BBC was claiming the moral high ground with the Pollard report, just because it was publishing criticism of itself (how amazing!) but doing relatively little about it. For example, the Head of News was returning to her post and other managers had been moved sideways.
  3. There was no indication of a desire for structural change – it was all about individuals.
  4. That it was evident there was too much managing up, and too many managers in BBC News.
  5. That the public (as evidenced by the OurBeeb petition) wants to know what the person who runs the BBC stands for and why, and is much more interested in this than many BBC insiders assume.
  6. That what happened regarding the exposure of Jimmy Savile is of deep importance to the British public and needs to be treated as such.

In voicing these points I was treated by interviewers, from Radio Four to local radio, as if I was mad, misinformed or malicious, as was kindly pointed out in an analysis by Dan Hind. The Today presenter, James Naughtie, regarded me as ridiculous and showed not the slightest interest in what the petition to appoint the new DG transparently and openly actually said, on air or afterwards.

Yet one of the most striking things is the way almost all the BBC producers and presenters defended the institution by citing its “self-criticism” as if this makes it accountable. If anyone else dares to join in the criticism, however, they should beware! The cult of the BBC is reinforced, in its eyes, by its own ability to hang its head and say “very sorry” while this makes it positively redundant for others to suggest lessons that might be learnt. It is beyond odd how so many different BBC employees in different parts of the country with different levels of responsibility all seemed to speak with one voice. A one voice that positively yells, in effect to silence out others: “The BBC is a fine institution. We make mistakes but hey – look at us putting it right!”

It is quite astonishing that an organisation which employs thousands somehow gets them all to think the same way. It is either something in the water, or a deep-seated cultural mindset born of the guilty knowledge that here is an organisation with no real brakes – guaranteed customers, guaranteed income, massive marketing and publicity outlets, and the only pressure being the kangaroo court of public opinion. Not only does it operate a monopoly of public-service broadcasting - it must also control a monopoly of relevant criticism of itself as a public service broadcaster. Yes, the BBC puts on a very good show when it comes to self-criticism but it is very prickly under the surface and woe betide anyone who criticises from the outside!  Yes, we all love the BBC, but...

Savile, the cultural icon

Perhaps the most important thing I want to draw attention to is the issue of the Savile scandal itself. The issue of Newsnight dropping the investigation is much, much bigger than the later fiasco about the North Wales children’s home. The most important point is that the Savile story was not just a story about exposing the ghastly flaws of a celebrity.

Savile was known to be bonking his way round Britain in the ʼ70s. Then it was acceptable. I can think of at least five male stars, still happily at it today and sometimes being lauded in the redtops for doing so, who were the same. It was distasteful but in the heady days of the sexual revolution and the enormous seismic shift in British values, it was overlooked. Anyone who criticised sexual freedom of any sort then would have been monstered, like Mary Whitehouse, as a horrible repressive harridan.

The change was massive, a slow tsunami starting after the Second World war, augmented by technology such as the contraceptive pill, but most of all, fuelled by the rise of ordinary people who started to question the patriarchal structure of society – sex, drugs and rock ʼn’ roll was just the icing. The cake was a libertarianism never seen before, the result of education, better housing, consumer goods and wars which shook the world.

To many of these working class people, someone like Jimmy Savile was more than an entertainer: he was the pirate who took over the ship of state, the cheeky Northerner who stood for fun and frolics, and people with accents like ours on the BBC. We needed to love him. He was the zeitgeist. People did not want to believe that he took advantage of children in homes, or hospitals. For those who knew he went that far, it was too horrible to contemplate. Savile stood for our brave new world. We didn’t want to know. 

Nowadays many people contend that they always suspected something distasteful about Savile. I’m not sure that is entirely correct. I met him in 1975 and found him peculiar but rather charming, certainly not a groping ogre. Yes, people knew he liked girls. And to be fair, a lot of girls liked him.  But to say that we all always knew there was something deeply sinister about Savile is nonsense. What IS true, however, is that the truth slowly became more widely known to people in the entertainment world. His proclivities were less controlled (or were even encouraged) by those around him who should have protected his victims. So in the end, as Anthony Barnett says, we were all complicit, either because we knew, or because we didn’t want to know.

That is why Newsnight was so terribly wrong to stall on the documentary. It was not a mere celebrity story. It was about someone who personified social change in the minds of millions of Britons whom he betrayed, and who betrayed themselves.  Indeed, the story actually had very little to do with the BBC at all. It was about something much bigger: the NHS, the police, the prisons, the permissive society, the sexual revolution - everything really. We were all involved. Not to see this with the evidence in front of you, not to understand that here was a duty to public service, to leave this to ITV, means that in a profound cultural sense the BBC must have lost its way. 

Why the response to Pollard was too little, too late

Pollard found chaos and confusion in BBC News management. But this was in part a symptom. There was a crisis in the thinking of the people at the top over Savile because he was a BBC creature. It was a terrible thing to have to face up to – that one of the best loved entertainers of a half century was this disgusting, vicious man whom no-one dared challenge: their disgusting, vicious man whom they celebrated, even with tributes, even after they knew.

Newsnight was only the beginning - the inertia which followed, the hope that it would all go away, is what was really wrong. And the multi-layered management meant there was always someone to say “Mmm, maybe not now….” There was no-one with the instinct for what the public needed, which was the right to know - so that we too could be disgusted with ourselves for letting this happen. And we deserve the right to face up to the way we were.  Now in 2013, in this truly brave new world of the internet, of social media, of public self-confidence (universal suffrage is only 85 years old, younger than Savile) we, the public, can and must cope with these sorts of exposures. We really are all in it together, for sure.

So we need the BBC to inform us - even if it indicts the BBC, because we and the BBC are umbilically linked. Perhaps that’s what BBC executives find hard to take, that the BBC is no better than any of us. So the BBC management in future has to look and feel, and be, more at one with the rest of us, with a structure we can understand and with managers and certainly with a Director General who we can recognise and respect.

Here and now there must be structural change and an open, robust, un-intimidated discussion about how the BBC is governed so that self-serving “self criticism” cannot be passed off as reparation. In the current structure, who else can formally criticise the BBC? No-one. Self-criticism from within is all it has and all it permits but it isn’t enough. The BBC must learn to react calmly to criticism from without, to listen to it, to be able to concede if it is right and therefore change accordingly.

The lapse in time between Newsnight dropping the Savile story and the Pollard investigation proves that the BBC did not regulate itself enough. It is easy to say, like Christopher Bland, don’t worry now, children, everything’s all right now the best chap is in charge. Picked by another good chap, and endorsed by an anonymous body of Trustees. Tony Hall may be the right man, but the truth is that he has been chosen in the wrong way.

Tap on the shoulder appointments in the BBC are not going to work any more. This is not a commercial company where the Chairman and the Directors can make a choice. We’re not shareholders, we’re stakeholders. It’s different. The BBC is a massive cultural corporation funded by the public and while I am not suggesting a “Strictly” style vote for DG, I think it is essential that the public know what a potential DG stands for and why the successful candidate is picked. I think the process whereby Tony Hall was chosen should be transparent. I think the structure of the management should be radically streamlined and that the public should know who is responsible for what in a clear, explicit way without wading through a website which just adds to the confusion.  It is also essential that the role of the BBC Trust is questioned.

There is an extreme argument which suggests that Jimmy Savile and his behaviour was tolerated because he was there to keep the unwashed happy while the old guard went on running things behind the scenes. This is not a conspiracy theory and I wouldn’t endorse it without more evidence. But who was using whom? Today it is announced that a new tranche of State papers are released under the 30 year rule. theyshow that Savile, "became a regular visitor to Chequers, spending New Year's Eve with the Thatcher family on a number of occasions", according to this morning's Independent. It goes on to say that notes on the Savile file "show that several pages were removed and material from other entries deleted for 40 years by officials using exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act on 11 October this year – a week after ITV broadcast a documentary revealing allegations of sexual assault against Savile". For 40 years! We are assured the reducted material would not have helped the police with their current inquries into his child abuse. What, then, is it that we are not allowed to see? Is the regime's relationship with Savile now a matter of national security?  

Here was a working class hero, top of the popular, turned into an aspirational  philanthropist who called on the people to express their dreams and so that he could help 'fix' the modest to achieve them. Had he been cool and wise, as well as warm and enjoyable, what hope would there have been for future Jeremy Paxmans? Instead, Jim represented us, the people, and the Governors could sleep easy in their beds.

Now we know all about it - thanks to ITV, not the BBC! We are no longer such an easily manipulated ‘mass’ as we were when we were taken for a ride. By Jim, yes, but also by those who knew the Jim they created and patronised. So old guard beware. Your ways and your days may be numbered. And if not, they deserve to be.   

About the author

Lis Howell is Deputy Head of the Journalism department at City University and Director of the TV and Broadcasting Courses. She was Head of News at Border Television and won a Royal Television Society award for leading the coverage of the Lockerbie disaster.