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Savile, the perfect storm

A candid and compelling piece from Jean Seaton, the official historian of the BBC, on why the Savile affair is the perfect storm for the Corporation.

Phil Gradwell, Flickr

The Savile crisis is grindingly painful for the BBC. Let’s get the poison clear first. It is probably the most serious crisis since the eighties. This is because it involves what turns out to be a sustained betrayal of public confidence and trust over many decades. It is bitterly dreadful that Savile abused vulnerable young women and used his power as a popular celebrity to exploit and silence them. That he operated within a form that was a peculiarly BBC product -  a combination of charitable work and vulgar fun - makes it very uncomfortable. Paradoxically, Esther Rantzen used just such a mixture to launch the charity Childline which, in exactly the same time frame as Savile, identified and campaigned against the betrayal of abused children.

However, generations of BBC viewers were involved in what they now feel with revulsion to have been a complicity with Savile, a man that they undoubtedly believed to be odd, but whose good-hearted intentions appeared to be guaranteed by a whole series of authoritative institutions. That sense of personal investment, the children who loved Jim’ll Fix It, the teenagers who liked Top of the Pops, the grans who thought he did so much for charity, all of this means that much of the British public feels as if their pleasure in his performance, and indeed their enthusiasm for him, was exploited in a vile way. They will understandably want to blame someone. Moreover, if going to war in Iraq (the Hutton crisis) eventually killed hundreds of thousands of people and was more serious, it was also a crisis in the chattering classes. This is different. 

Of all of the creators of Savile (the NHS, his charities and the police who failed to pursue allegations against him are all implicated) the BBC is the institution that made him a popular hero. The puzzle of what people did not notice is real but hardly a defence. Several of the controllers of Light Entertainment over the course of his career were impeccably decent people: Bill Cotton, for instance, and the showy but sound Michael Grade. But to argue that they must never have known or understood anything of Savile’s behaviour because they would not have tolerated it remains an insufficient defence. Had Light Entertainment had more women in it then, like the police, it might have altered the culture. But it was noticeably the last bastion to fall to women.

The BBC’s handling of the ITV and Newsnight journalism that exposed Savile was also deeply flawed. One has to question the judgement of the press department who decided to spin the story against ITV rather than acting as guardians of the core BBC values. It was not the BBC’s job to question ITV’s reporting but at the very least to wait and see.  This might be because Press department has – like many other parts of the BBC – in a way become outsourced and more distanced from key editorial DNA.

The crisis has led to internal civil war in news and that is the heart of the BBC. At the moment the BBC’s investigative journalism is contaminated by the scandal. BBC news usually salivates at the opportunity to attack the BBC; now it is riven. Worse than that the handling of the crisis has lacked the ruthless, strategic, swift grip it needed. Instead the Corporation will be locked in mire for months. It is awful and deeply depressing. Also, it is not helped by a reluctance to engage with initiatives like openDemocracy’s ‘OurBeeb’ where the arguments can be shared rather than left to fester.

However, the witch hunt that is developing is likely to consume decent people. Although we will not know for sure until the report is published it seems to me very unlikely that there was any kind of conscious conspiracy to shelve the reporting on Newsnight. There was ultimately a catastrophic error of editing. Indeed, it is a tragedy for several BBC employees. People who have built careers making subtle discriminations in favour of the impartial, the reasonable and the interests of the public are likely to lose their jobs because of an editorial error. Chris Patten, a Catholic, must be personally appalled by the corruption that has emerged on his watch (though not under his jurisdiction). Patten is a very able politician. But it was not the assault that he would have expected, it was George Entwistle who was chosen to be the human face and voice for the BBC. Instead of a political conflict in which he would have shone, this is one he finds it difficult to speak on.

But the witch hunt is also for the BBC as an institution.  While the press wanted to attack the Blair government during the Iraq war crisis and was consequently divided over the BBC’s role, on this occasion the press is almost entirely hostile to the Corporation. This is because of the Leveson process. The press want revenge for the phone hacking scandal that has humiliated and exposed many of them as behaving with a sense of overweening power. Combining both revenge and a useful distraction, being able to attack the BBC is a gift. Even more dangerously it is also because the same commercial enemies of the Corporation see a genuine chance to wreck the BBC and reduce it. They have a government that is weak and a Minister for Culture, Media & Sport who has little grasp of the principles, whilst the department she leads is demoralised and emaciated having lost half of its staff since the Olympics. This political gap is of course a perfect opportunity for those who have for a long time eyed the BBC hungrily. The scandal unfolding has many facets: public horror, a press keen to distract the public from its own abuses of power, political weakness combined with ingrained hostility to the BBC, commercial ambition and undoubted institutional failures within the BBC itself. The BBC has been engulfed in the perfect storm.

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About the author

Jean Seaton is Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster in London. She is co-author (with James Curran) of the classic text Power Without Responsibility, (now in its fifth edition), and has recently been appointed as the official historian of the BBC in the 1980s.


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