How did he get away with so much for so long? The press and Jimmy Savile

"The press likes to present itself as a tireless crusader for truth, exposing the mistakes and deceptions of those in the public eye. While it has pursued many worthwhile campaigns, it also has many blind spots..."

Adrian Bingham
26 June 2014

How did he get away with so much for so long? The publication of the NHS and Department of Health reports into the activities of Jimmy Savile will doubtless lead to another wave of critical newspaper columns lamenting the failure of Broadmoor, Leeds General Infirmary and Stoke Mandeville hospitals to protect people in their care from the disgraced DJ.

It is, of course, quite right that negligence is exposed and lessons learnt, in the BBC as well as the NHS. But there are uncomfortable questions for the press, too. Newspapers are outspoken about the mistakes of others, but they are very reluctant to reflect on their own activities. Just as Kate Lampard, the overseer of the NHS investigations, asked historians to contextualise events at the hospitals, so too is it helpful to understand the longer-term development of journalism to explain why the press did not do more to reveal Savile’s criminal behaviour.

My research in editorial archives, studying changes in newspaper content since 1918, indicates that there are three main reasons why journalists did not pursue concerns about Savile. The first is the deeply entrenched caution about challenging public figures about their private lives. In the first half of the twentieth century, the press drew a veil over the intimate relationships of politicians and celebrities, unless they had been dragged into the public realm via a court case or divorce claim. Prime Ministers and party leaders – such as Henry Asquith, David Lloyd George and Hugh Gaitskell – knew that their marital infidelities would not be used against them.

The boundaries between public and private started to shift in the 1960s, notably after 1963 when John Profumo, the Conservative War Minister, admitted an ‘improper acquaintanceship’ with the young model Christine Keeler and set off a wave of rumours about sexual adventurism in wealthy London circles. As Lord Denning observed in his report into the affair, ‘scandalous information about well-known people has become a marketable commodity’. But stringent libel laws still limited the willingness of journalists to investigate rumours. The dangers were underlined in 1964 when the Sunday Mirror sacked its editor, Reginald Payne, and paid out the then huge sum of £40,000, after printing allegations that the Conservative peer, Lord Boothby, was having a ‘homosexual relationship’ with Ronnie Kray.

It was not until 1973 that the press brought about the resignation of ministers for their sexual indiscretions. In May 1973, Lord Lambton, the Minister for the RAF, resigned when he found that his liaisons with prostitutes were about to be exposed by the Sunday press. Earl Jellicoe, the Leader of the House of Lords, followed days later after admitting that he too had paid for sex. Even in this case the News of the World passed up the story despite very strong evidence, because it feared libel action, leaving its rival, the Sunday People to break the scandal.

The intense tabloid competition of the 1980s spurred editors into taking greater risks, with legal payments increasingly accepted as part of the cost of getting more sensational stories, but even in this bolder climate few journalists wanted to be too expensive to their papers. Savile was notoriously litigious: he told the police in 2009 that he had sued five newspapers in the past, and they had all settled. Brian Hitchen, editor of the Daily Star from 1987-1994, and Paul Connew, editor of the Sunday Mirror from 1994-95, have both said they had credible evidence of Savile’s crimes, but – to their frustration – not enough to satisfy their papers’ lawyers. Newspapers took the safer course of describing the DJ as ‘eccentric’ or ‘strange’ rather than anything stronger.

Fear of legal punishment was reinforced by the second factor, journalists’ proximity to the people they reported on. The memoirs of musicians Nick Kent and Mick Farren make clear that many reporting on the music world of which Savile was part enjoyed the sex and drugs that were freely available, and shared a sense of fraternity with the stars they mixed with. Journalists knew that future access would be denied if they revealed too much of what went on behind the scenes, and it was easier to churn out admiring articles that satisfied readers than to rock the boat. Agents such as Max Clifford provided another layer of protection for celebrities by managing their press coverage. Clifford admitted in his autobiography enabling stars to live out their sexual fantasies in safe environments, while dealing with editors to conceal or repackage potentially damaging stories.

The third explanation for press silences is the male-dominance of the newsrooms and the limited influence, certainly before the 1990s, of feminism. Sex scandals were viewed in terms of titillation rather than exposing abuse. Where sexual crimes were highlighted, the press focused upon the danger posed by predatory strangers, such as the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’, rather than the far more common abuse carried out by family members, friends, or people in positions of authority.

The press likes to present itself as a tireless crusader for truth, exposing the mistakes and deceptions of those in the public eye. While it has pursued many worthwhile campaigns, it also has many blind spots. The Savile affair has exposed some of these, and while libel law reforms and the acceptance of far more women into the newsrooms have changed the culture of journalism, there is plenty still to do to ensure both that sexual abuse is taken seriously and that public figures are held to account for their actions. The NHS and the BBC are not the only institutions that should be under pressure.


Co-published with History and Policy, Institute of Contemporary British History, King's College London

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