Newsroom game question: What is the most important news of the last decade? Few would argue with the pandemic and Brexit. Not far away, perhaps, is the Jimmy Savile scandal.
There are not many stories that change our world. This one did. It transformed the way we deal with allegations of sexual assault. We reevaluate our attitude toward celebrity. We saw more clearly than ever how morally corrupt institutions can be. It was the harbinger of the #MeToo movement.
More editorial remarks can be expected in the coming months because October will mark 10 years since the death of one of the most prolific rapists this country has known. To mark the occasion, there are five (by last count) television shows in production: four documentaries and one drama.
I, like many writers, am obsessive about Savile. Mainly because of fault. I couldn’t believe how my generation of journalists had failed to do our work in such a catastrophic way, for so long. So in 2015 I tried to atone by writing the play An audience with Jimmy Savile. Too little too late, obviously, but I read everything, including Dan Davies’s brilliant book. Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile, a hagiographic (but equally useful) authoritative biography called How about that then? and most revealing of all, Savile’s autobiography, How does it happen. The play was staged despite a Daily mirror petition calling for its ban. One review called it “the trial he never had,” which was the point.
A decade later, most people know the basic facts. How Savile attacked some 450 women and children. How he set up a royal flush of institutions: the BBC, the NHS, the Catholic Church, the police, the government, in the form of Mrs Thatcher, and the monarchy. (The Prince of Wales called Savile his “health adviser”).
But it is the details that are the most instructive. If you want to know exactly how Savile got away with it, read the 2009 transcript of his interview with two police officers in which the 83-year-old brags and threatens to get out of trouble.
“I support annually, according to the Charity Commission… at least 50 separate charities,” he says, as part of a routine in his philanthropy. And then: “I have, how shall we say, ‘friends’ … I take this kind of thing very seriously … and if this process doesn’t go away for some reason, then my people can book time at the Old Bailey … and if we do, then you two … will end up at the Old Bailey as witnesses … but no one seems to want to go that far … because of the prospect of me on the other side of the court. “
It will be fascinating to see if this scene appears in the next BBC film about Savile. For me, there was no moral justification for dramatizing the story without her. A documentary can take you this far, but you only fully capture its power, ruthlessness, and ability to intimidate by bringing that interview dramatic life.
Equally fascinating will be if the BBC film bites the hand that feeds it. Of all the large British institutions that Savile defrauded, the BBC was the most to blame. Our publicly funded national broadcaster not only created The Artist Known as Jimmy Savile, but enabled it. He even tacitly encouraged him. This is what then CEO Tony Hall said after the 2016 release of Dame Janet Smith’s investigative report, which began work in 2012, after reading survivors’ testimony: “This [their devastation] Hit me, because he made it very clear that we did. We, the BBC, did that. Jimmy Savile committed many crimes in many places. But, in a unique way, it was the BBC that made him famous. We make him a VIP. “
The bigger question, however, is whether things have changed since the scandal was discovered by News nightMeirion Jones and the late Liz MacKean in the weeks after Savile’s death. Discovered but not reported, note: BBC executives, remember, swapped the story in favor of a flattering tribute program.
Our treatment of whistleblowers, if the BBC’s actions are anything to go through, could still improve. Shortly after the scandal, Jones and MacKean were effectively expelled from the BBC. So he promised to do better. Employees who air dirty laundry will be treated with sympathy. But when the opportunity arose to exonerate another whistleblower, Matt Weissler, the graphic artist involved in the Martin Bashir scandal, not much seemed to have changed. Last year, when it became clear how badly Weissler had been treated, the BBC took a long time to act. In fact, if he hadn’t been embarrassed by Earl Spencer and the MailWeissler would still be waiting for his apology.
Some lessons have been learned. Before Savile, many survivors were afraid to come forward, assuming they wouldn’t believe them or that the process would be too traumatic. But after Savile a new policy was announced: From now on, allegations of sexual assault would be considered “credible and true.” However, this caused different problems, typified by the Carl Beech scandal, in which he believed too much in a fanciful and his reputation was unjustifiably ruined.
But the next incarnation of politics, that the allegations would be taken seriously and heard, was a huge improvement on the old days before Savile. It is also clear that the devastating and deeply important findings of last week’s Lambeth council child abuse report were, in part, made possible by the scandal: Lambeth survivors spoke about being emboldened by the coverage of the Savile case and the fact. that they finally were – be heard.
But deep structural problems persist. In the year to March 2020, almost 60,000 rape cases were recorded in England and Wales. But there were only 2,102 prosecutions – a 30% drop from the previous year. And the rich, famous and powerful are still getting away with it. Exhibit A: Bill Cosby, sent to prison for sexual assault, but whose conviction was recently overturned on a technicality. Now he is a free man.
Although journalism is better. Before Savile, one suspects that recent allegations about powerful guys from show business would never have been reported. Most important of all, survivors now feel able to speak freely. One of the upcoming programs is a remarkable feature length documentary, on which I advised, called Jimmy Savile: The People Who Knew. It features the heartbreaking testimony of a gentle and broken woman named Dawn, giving her first interview.
Savile assaulted her on a train when she was a teenager, but she was too scared to tell anyone. He emigrated to escape the memories and had two failed marriages. Here’s what she says: “I got on the train at Gray’s station … in one of those wagon compartments, like the Harry Potter train. And there was a man in the carriage and he started talking to me, and he looked at me and he said, do you know who I am? And I looked, it was Jimmy Savile.
“I wanted to know how old he was and where he lived and things like that. I couldn’t see any harm in talking to him … because he was Jimmy Savile, you know? And of course he was dazzled, you know, like he had Top of the Pops, and it was on Radio 1, and there was Jim will fix it, all those things that I had grown up with.
Jimmy Savile came over and like, hand on his leg, then he moved to hand on his chest. And then I realized that what I thought was his hand on his lap, was not his hand on his lap …
“He had obviously been playing with himself, on the train… he was numb… confused, he didn’t fully understand what was going on. I was 17, never had … something like this before.
“I felt … as if he took part of that virginity, that purity … he stole that from me, and I think … that’s why I had two failed marriages because I never felt good. I never told my parents. I would have obtained the third degree.
“I was just not happy. I saw an ad saying ‘Babysitters Wanted in Canada’ and applied. Six weeks later I was in Calgary. It was difficult to leave. I was running away. I freely admit it. I escaped.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism