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The Dark Side of a British TV Icon
October 27, 2012  | By Kim Akass  | 100 comments

[Editor's Note: Just a few weeks ago, as American newscasts were reporting on the sentencing of convicted child molester Jerry Sandusky — the former Penn State assistant football coach who used his position to befriend his adolescent victims — a similarly shocking sex scandal was unfolding in Great Britain. As days progressed, the nation learned that recently deceased TV personality Jimmy Savile, the flamboyant host of several BBC programs targeted at kids and teens, had been a serial pedophile who may have abused, at last count, as many as 300 underage girls over six decades. Now BBC executives, including Mark Thompson, who led the BBC from 2004-2012 and was recently named CEO of The New York Times, find themselves on the defense amid accusations that many within the broadcasting corporation were not only aware of Sevile's actions, but killed a report about the allegations against their former star.]

By Kim Akass

A scandal of some magnitude has hit the BBC over the past few weeks

The ITV documentary Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile, which aired Oct. 3, 2012 to some 2.44 million British viewers (and is embedded at the end of this column), lifted the lid on the dark side of Sir James Wilson Vincent Savile.

For those of you that don’t know the story: Savile was a TV and radio presenter whose career spanned over fifty years. He began as a coal miner during World War II, moving into entertainment through DJ spots in dance halls, which he later managed. His media career started on Radio Luxembourg in 1958 and, two years later, he moved into TV via Tyne Tees Television. Savile was the first DJ to host BBC chart show, Top of the Pops, in 1964 and also the last to host it when the show ended in 2006. 

Renowned for his status as "national institution," over the course of his lifetime Savile raised over £40 million for good causes. A sight to behold in his dreadful shell suits, peroxide blonde hair, short shorts and shiny vests — all the time chomping on a huge phallic cigar — Savile quickly became the darling of the BBC. His hugely popular Saturday evening show, Jim’ll Fix It, ran from 1975 to 1994; billed as a program that made children’s wishes come true, in reality Savile used it to "groom" a steady progression of vulnerable youngsters in awe of the star.

Rumours about Savile’s sexual peccadillos had been circulating since the 1970s. In 1973, while working on his radio show Savile’s Travels, colleagues had gossiped about his antics with underage women and charges of being sexually inappropriate were levelled at him in a meeting with the management team. Unsurprisingly Savile denied all knowledge and, with no evidence to convict him, was allowed to develop a lifelong career working not only with young women but children as well.

He starred in his own TV show Clunk Click (BBC 1973-74) a weekly chat show where he invited vulnerable young girls from various institutions (like Broadmoor, a psychiatric hospital and Duncroft Approved School for girls) to to sit in the audience amongst stars like (now convicted) pedophile Gary Glitter and comedian Freddie Starr. Savile was rarely seen without a young woman (or women) on his arm and was open about his unlawful predilection for young girls, even writing about it in his early autobiography. In April 2000 Savile was the focus of a Louis Theroux documentary where he was explicitly asked about his thoughts on the rumours that continued to circulate around him.

So, when the news broke at the beginning of October, just under a year after his death, many were less surprised at the allegations made against him than the amount of time it had taken for the truth to out.  

The press focus was initially on whether it was right that the ITV documentary should have been screened after Savile’s death, when he could not speak for himself. The BBC debate series Question Time addressed the issue head on by asking journalist, Janet Street Porter, her opinion:

The response to Street Porter’s riposte rumbled on for a few days with one of the many accusations levelled at her that, as a victim of abuse herself, she should have exposed Savile. Not for the last time the public would hear that, in a male-dominated entertainment industry where inappropriate sexual behavior was the norm, the higher echelons at the BBC would never believe the claims of a young journalist against the word of charity fundraiser and people’s darling, Jimmy Savile.

As the days went past and the story unravelled, the BBC’s culpability in the Jimmy Savile sex scandal became the focus, especially the Newsnight exposé on the star’s penchant for pedophilia that had been shelved 11 months previously.  Questions were soon being asked: had the BBC’s flagship current affairs program made a dreadful editorial mistake or, and more worrying still, was the story ditched by an editor under pressure from a management desperate not to upset the TV schedules in the run up to Christmas — particularly in the light of planned tribute shows in praise of the star?

As the furor has rumbled on, the BBC’s involvement has become ever more complex. In a hurried move to save face, BBC’s Panorama ran its own investigation into the affair. Running for over an hour and reaching just over 5 million viewers, the special investigation traced a catalog of missed opportunities. Newsnight producers Liz MacKean and Meirion Jones were interviewed about the untimely ditching of their program with MacKean speaking eloquently about the affect this course of action had on Karin Ward (right). The first victim to come forward, Ward too was interviewed about her involvement with the program and revealed how angry she felt when her story was shelved, and how that decision compounded her feelings of not being believed.

Repeatedly colleagues of Savile’s were asked why, if they suspected the star of inappropriate sexual practices, did they not tell? Why did they allow the sexual abuse of minors to continue? Repeatedly they replied that nobody would have believed them. Much like the victims of abuse themselves, they seemed bewildered that anyone would even think that their word be taken over the powerful charity fundraising star’s.

The catalogue of mishandling continues.

The BBC's new Director General of the Corporation, George Entwistle, has now found himself at the centre of a scandal of untold proportions. Two weeks into the job and he has not only faced an almost daily barrage of questions by the press, but has been hauled in front of a Select Committee and subject to two hours of intense questioning by MPs. If it seems a little unfair that Entwistle should be at the center of this storm, it is worth remembering that at the time of the Newsnight debacle he was Director of Vision, controlling the schedules and in overall charge of what would be screened. Newsnight editor, Peter Rippon, has stepped aside while the BBC conducts its own enquiries into the case.  Many are suggesting that both should resign as their involvement in the scandal becomes more apparent. 

The trial by TV continues. Each day brings new developments as new stories bubble up, more claims are made, more victims come forward and more institutions are brought into the spotlight. The BBC maybe at the center of this scandal and, as a Public Service Broadcaster and main employer of Jimmy Savile there is no doubt that it should be brought to account, but we would do well to remember that Savile hoodwinked many more over the years — organisations like the NHS Trust, Stoke Mandeville hospital, Leeds General Infirmary, Broadmoor; the Vatican (Savile was awarded a papal knighthood in 1990) Royalty (he was knighted by the Queen in the same year) and, of course, his infamous friendship with Margaret Thatcher. 

Again and again the question is asked: how did he get away with it? 

A recent newcast brought a welcome report from Metropolitan Police Commander Peter Spindler who is leading the investigations into the Savile abuse scandal. According to reports Operation Yewtree "has identified 300 victims — up from 200 last week — and is looking at 400 lines of inquiry." The report adds: "All but two of the victims are female."

Original victim, Karin Ward, has now spent some nine hours giving evidence against Savile and says that at last she feels that she has been heard and, above all, believed. Spindler has gone on record saying that this police inquiry is a "watershed moment in the investigation of child abuse" and praised the media for exposing Savile "for what he was." If praising the media seems to be one step too many for some it would seem that Savile has, however unwittingly, performed a service for many, many, victims of sexual abuse by getting away with it for so long. One of the most "prolific sex offenders of recent history" has clearly demonstrated how it is possible for pedophiles to perpetrate their heinous crimes without detection for many decades. That Savile managed this in the full glare of the media spotlight, freely allowed to abuse vulnerable youngsters under our very noses, should be a salutary lesson to us all. 

Many commentators have suggested that the reason Savile got away with it was because, as Janet Street Porter suggested on Question Time, inappropriate sexual behavior in the '60s and '70s was the norm. Street Porter was clear that this accusation should not only be levelled towards the BBC but was true across all media. We should not feel too complacent that this kind of sexism has gone anywhere except behind closed doors as it has been widely reported that one of the reasons Peter Rippon did not feel the original Newsnight story should run, was because Savile’s crimes "weren’t the worst kind of sexual offenses" and that "it was 40 years ago … the girls were teenagers, not too young."

And yet, I am not surprised. And nor should anyone be. The BBC, the NHS and Duncroft approved school are now facing up to 18 claims for damages from women who hold that the institutions "had a 'vicarious liability' for the activities of their staff or their agents." Whether these claims will ever be paid is another matter but, for me, we have reached a moment where television, while being held accountable for the reprehensible behavior of one of its stars, could also seize the day and turn that tide for good. If anything positive can come out of this catalog of disasters it must be that the media, and in particular the BBC, as public service broadcaster, must now become standard bearer and turn its attention to the sexual double standards and misogyny that has been the norm both behind and in front of our screens for far too many years.

Savile’s onscreen antics obviously come from an anachronistic past, but there are many women, myself included, that have suffered under the hands of lecherous behavior condoned by the mainstream media. If we are to learn anything from the Jimmy Savile debacle it must be that this kind of predatory behavior can no longer be tolerated. It maybe too late for many of us but it is not too late for our children.

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