Jimmy Savile and the BBC


Why the surprise, the sense of shock, the orchestrated gasps of revulsion? The late ghastly, self-indulgent radio and television presenter Jimmy Savile, who would effectively confess on live television that he would so anything to everything, is now sending posthumous tremors through the broadcasting establishments of the United Kingdom – primarily the BBC. The corpse is positively animated, and the knives are out. But more to the point, he has managed to mock, in death, the false purity of the Beeb, showing its smutty core of complicity.

The fuss here is that Savile was, allegedly, a very busy boy, fumbling and fondling his away through a career spanning 40 years. Since the network ITV ran an Exposure documentary a month ago, Scotland Yard has decided to investigate anywhere up to child abuse claims on 200 potential victims (Daily Beast, Oct 23).

Veteran journalist John Simpson has called the Savile crisis the biggest to have affected the BBC for nearly 50 years. (Seismic waves through respected institutions always seem to have several decades attached to them, a kind of hyperbolic reflex.) In Simpson’s view, “all we have as an organisation is the trust of the people that watch us and listen to us, and if we don’t have that… that’s very dangerous.”

For one thing, it should be noted that the BBC has proven to be a font of crisis throughout its history, addicted to controversy and scandal. That grand institution has often proven to be as pure as driven slush, provided the circumstances warranted it. The more one peers into the murky files, the more one realises that Savile is merely a grotesque tip (well, more tip than ice berg).

Consider, as has been previously reported, the instance of Cold War vetting, designed to weed the garden of broadcasters of subversive types. Applicants to the organisation who did not make the purity grade were stamped with a green tag of triangular shape dubbed the “Christmas Tree”. Reasons might be that the applicant had been silly, even inquisitive enough to subscribe to the Daily Worker, or had dealings with that curious political species called Communists (Guardian, Oct 22).

Nor should one forget the stewardship of Alasdair Milne, director general from 1982 to 1987. Milne had more than his fair share of run-ins with Thatcher’s government, making decisions over the coverage of the Falklands War, the 1984-85 miners’ strike, and interviewing a senior Republican Paramilitary in defiance of the authorities. More recently, the BBC has also been loose with its viewers – pretending, on its Blue Peter program for children, that any of those 40,000 children who rang in for a competition in aid of the UN children’s fund Unicef had a chance to win. (They didn’t – a technical fault on the line put pay to that possibility.)

None of this excuses the alleged – and at this point, it can only alleged – behaviour that Savile is said to have engaged in. It has been revealed that Peter Rippon, editor of the daily current-affairs program Newsnight, decided to pull the plug on an investigation on Savile’s antics. One should not cast aspersions on a dead man after all, and Rippon may well have had his own host of editorial considerations. Not that this should prevent the BBC from giving itself a good mauling. Panorama interviewed both Liz MacKean and producer Meirion Jones, both of whom were instrumental in getting things going in investigating the smutty accord Savile had reached in the heart of Britain’s broadcasting industry.

Their initial investigations centred on the testimony of Karin Ward, formerly a patient of a care home for girls Savile made a habit of visiting. Ward’s descriptions suggest a network of abuse on BBC premises – not merely by Savil, but other celebrities who wished to share the flesh.

In a sense, the horror that is now coming through is the problem of misplaced adulation, anger at the perfectly executed con job and indignation at those who might have stopped it. And it was perfect, abuse undertaken in “plain sight” suggesting that few should be surprised. This man found himself dining at the Vatican and with Margaret Thatcher. His coterie of fans numbered in the millions. In an odd sense, he could argue to have never hidden anything at all.

In a grim way, he is the one laughing, the joker who got away with his stash, the vicious clown who managed to ridicule the very people who venerated him. The only ones who are going to be facing any charges now will be those institutions – the BBC, the NHS – who recklessly and negligently allowed him free rein over his purported victims. A different sort of paranoia – the paranoia of vengeance against paedophilia – will now set in.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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