Jimmy Savile: when dogs don't bark
The origins of the current media storm lie in pre-publicity for the ITV Exposure documentary which was broadcast on 3rd October - less than a fortnight ago, although already it seems like years. The Radio Times published a story about the programme on 20th September, reporting that "a number of women have been interviewed for the programme, each alleging that as under-age teenagers they were abused by Savile during the 1970s." It went on to say that the documentary was "still being edited" and quoted an old friend of Savile's, Howard Silverman, as rubbishing the claims:
Of course we would go out in the 1970s and chat women up but everyone did that at the time, we were single guys and having a good time. But none of the girls were ever unwilling and they were definitely never underage. Jimmy hated anything like that.
Savile was best man at Silverman's wedding in 2009, and led many of the tributes to him after his death last year. I wonder how he's feeling now.
The national press got hold of the Savile revelations about a week later. The Evening Standard went with it on 28th September, and the story dominated the rest of the papers and the broadcast media the following day. And so it has been ever since. The documentary itself was surely one of the most eagerly awaited in years, but it seems to have served only as an excuse for the bursting of the dam of silence that had surrounded Savile - a silence that had persisted despite rumours that occasionally, as at the time of Louis Theroux's documentary a decade ago, received a partial airing.
But information about the Savile allegations (and they are still allegations, if in many cases extremely credible allegations) and about the pulling of the Newsnight report, has been in the public domain since early February at the latest. On 10th February this year, the Telegraph (along with several other newspapers and media outlets) reported that:
The BBC shelved a Newsnight investigation into allegations that Sir Jimmy Savile sexually abused a teenage girl in his dressing room at Television Centre, it has emerged. The woman [later identified as Karin Ward] claimed that the presenter molested her when she was 14 or 15 after inviting her to recordings of Clunk Click, his 1970s BBC family show. Newsnight tracked down several other women who claimed that Savile used his role on the programme to groom and abuse teenage girls.
The BBC had hoped to broadcast the Newsnight report in December, two months after Savile’s death, but bosses ordered that the investigation be dropped. Instead, the corporation screened two tribute programmes celebrating Savile’s lengthy BBC career as presenter of Jim’ll Fix It and Top of the Pops, and also as a Radio 1 DJ. The BBC now stands accused of covering up the allegations, which were detailed in The Oldie magazine, because senior executives did not want the corporation’s reputation to be tarnished...
Enough material there, both in the claims about Savile and about the alleged BBC cover-up, to set the story running. Guido had already had a go, reporting on 8th February that there were "whispers in the wind of a potential BBC scandal developing." He went on to state that "the BBC said in December that Newsnight’s report was never aired because there was not enough proof, but that line is now looking shaky." (I haven't been able to track down any official BBC statement on the issue from last year.)
All that was missing from the reports in February were the filmed interviews (admittedly powerful) that ITV's documentary makers were later able to provide. But given how much some of our national newspapers supposedly hate the BBC, you would imagine that they would have pounced upon the Savile allegations and run with them. It's worth bearing in mind that the majority of the abuse stories that have been published in the past three weeks do not have a direct source in the ITV film, or in the suppressed Newsnight package, but have been the result of people coming forward in the light of the publicity.
If nothing else, awareness of what Newsnight intended to broadcast could and should have spurred the press to begin their own investigations into Savile, investigations which would surely have led to many of the stories that have now emerged, emerging sooner. Instead, pro-Savile stories continued to appear. For example, July brought news of an auction of Savile's jewellery and other memorabilia, including his Rolls Royce which sold for £130,000, while on 20th September - the very day that Radio Times began the build-up to the ITV documentary - his elaborate and boastful tombstone was unveiled amid much mirth at an unfortunate spelling-mistake. At the ceremony, Savile's nephew made some unfortunate predictions: "Jimmy's legacy will be long lasting"; "the headstone will become a tourist attraction" [it is now landfill]; "I dare say soon there will be an ice cream stall and someone selling Jim'll Fix It badges."
What prevented the press from bursting "Sir" Jimmy's bubble even after his death removed threats of libel? It may be another sign of the timidity that has overtaken the press in the wake of the Leveson inquiry. It's also illuminating to read the comments under the Telegraph's report in Februry, which were overwhelmingly hostile to the story. One described commenter said that it was "appallingly disrespectful to air a scurrilous accusation like this after someone's death". Another accused the Telegraph of indulging in "tabloid muckraking about a dead former celeb who no one published anything about when he was alive to defend himself, wrapped in the DT's daily pop at their rival the BBC."
Meanwhile, Guido's piece brought out a bunch of conspiracy nuts obsessed with the long-discredited Hollie Greig case. (Though it has to be said that the conspiracy theorists were well ahead of the curve in linking Savile with the notorious Haut de la Garenne children's home in Jersey.)
The fact remains, however, that as recently as mid-September the British media continued to praise Savile even though thye were well aware, not simply of the rumours about him, but about about the abandoned Newsnight report and the allegations of a cover up within the BBC. Not only were the media aware, they had reported it. Millions of people must have read many of the exact same details that have been leading the news for the past three weeks, and that have caused a sensation. People read the details and shrugged, and turned to the next thing, as did the reporters who forgot about Savile's child-abuse and published cheerful photos of his Rolls instead. It just wasn't a big story. And then suddenly it was. How come?