SubScribe: Auntie's bloomers are hung out to dry Google+

Friday 22 February 2013

Auntie's bloomers are hung out to dry

It was always disappointing to come home from school on a Thursday to discover that Jimmy Savile would be presenting Top of the Pops. The programme, along with Ready  Steady Go, was the highlight of the week, so the choice of presenter was important.
They had all come from Radio Luxembourg -  David Jacobs, Pete (later Peter) Murray, Alan Freeman and Savile - so their voices were familiar from furtive listening under the eiderdown. We knew what David Jacobs looked like from Juke Box Jury, but to see rather than hear the others had been a revelation. None of them was what you'd call sexy, but Savile was simply odd, and no one I knew liked him.
When you're 12 you have instinct, but not the honed bullshit detector that comes with experience. We didn't like Savile because he seemed to regard himself as being on the same level as the musicians who came to mime on the show. And he patently wasn't. In those days big names appeared on TOTP, and I mean big names: the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Tom Jones. The other DJs showed due deference.
Through the Sixties and Seventies, Savile's profile grew and grew: the charity walks, the marathons, Jim'll Fix It. Somehow they were all about him and not about the people he was purporting to help. Breathing cigar smoke and jangling bracelets and chains, there was something sinister as he invited some little poppet to sit on his knee asking her: 'Have I made your dream come true?' before pointing  to his cheek and instructing her to plant a kiss 'just there.'. Still, everyone on television said how wonderful he was, so maybe I just didn't get it. A mysterious greatness that needed explanation, like Gerard Manley Hopkins or the Ancient bloody Mariner.
It didn't occur to me that he was a child molester. I just didn't like him.

No doubt a lot of people who didn't know his dark (and apparently open) secrets thought the same. It's easy to imagine that his despicable tastes were common knowledge around the BBC. As Jeremy Paxman told Nick Pollard's inquiry into the corporation's handling of the Savile story,  'It was...common gossip that Jimmy Savile liked young...I don't know whether it was girls or boys...but I had no evidence of it.'
Today we know only too well that we were all correct in our instincts, that there was something strange about him. As individuals we can avoid such people and mutter  what we think of them to each other, but as news organisations we cannot report rumour as fact. Nor, indeed, can we make insinuations as Cassandra (William Connor) did so expensively  in his magnificent appraisal of Liberace for the Daily Mirror in 1956.

'This appalling man...reeks with emetic language. Without doubt, he is the biggest sentimental vomit of all time. Slobbering over his mother...and counting the cash at every second, this superb piece of calculating candy-floss as an answer for every situation.
'There must be something wrong with us that our teenagers longing for sex and our middle-aged matrons fed up with sex alike should fall for such a sugary mountain of jingling claptrap wrapped up in  such a preposterous clown.'

He may have been writing about a glittery pianist half a century ago, but the description fits Savile to T,  right down to the peculiar sanctification of his mother. Publishing or broadcasting such thoughts, though, is fraught.

The BBC has been on the rack for months over Savile's long career of abuse and the ham-fisted way it dealt with Newsnight's investigation into his activities just as a tribute was  programme being prepared as a Christmas special in 2011. The screws were tightened when ITV broadcast its own documentary last November; then  Panorama joined the torturers with its take on the squabbling and mismanagement inside the BBC. Today the corporation is back in the punishment room after publication of evidence given to its internal inquiry under Nick Pollard. Apart from the substance of the text, there is further furore over the abundance of marker pan amid the typescript.

The BBC is seen as having failed on two fronts: in employing a man for decades in the face of strong hearsay evidence that he was a predatory paedophile, and for stifling the in-house investigative journalism that would have exposed his activities. 
Sharing the dock with the BBC on the first count are the likes of Stoke Mandeville Hospital and a dozen other organisations that saw Savile not as a wicked man but as a cash cow. Scores of people are hanging their heads in shame that they did not - or would not - see what he was or take action to stop him.
Paxman's evidence to Pollard is relevant to this in that he says that when the BBC had to embrace the  crowd from the pirate radio stations, they didn't know how to handle them. They were aliens, from another culture. This, remember, was the dawn of the era of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, of anything goes. If the BBC wanted to keep these hip guys it had to accept that joints would be rolled and sheets would be crumpled. Even if it had recognised what was going on, it wouldn't have had a clue how to deal with it.
That is not to excuse decades of inertia, but to explain how Savile was able to establish a modus operandi and eventually come to believe that no matter how outrageous he was, nothing could touch him. Sadly, as we know from countless inquiries and scandals, abuse of  children in borstals, special hospitals, hostels and orphanages was rife for at least three-quarters of the 20th century. The vicitims did not dare complain and even had they attempted to, who could they have confided in? Who would have listened to them, let alone believed them?

Today, however, it is on the second count that the BBC is being put on trial - for killing a story that was in the public interest simply because it was inconvenient. All good stories have their  heroes and villains. The Newsnight journalist Meirion Jones is the hero, the entire upper echelon of the BBC is the villain, and the Newsnight editor Peter Rippon the fallguy. We all love Paxo, so he has to take a major part on the side of the good guys - even though in truth his evidence is hardly telling. He didn't know what they were working on, beyond 'something about Savile', and he didn't even realise that there was anything wrong with the decision to pull the story  'until the shit hit the fan'.

So how culpable is the BBC journalistically?
By Paxman's admission, 'famous DJ turns out to be nasty man' is not your typical Newsnight story. 'I don't find it surprising,' he told the Pollard inquiry, 'that some people said "Look this isn't really for us." It is not our normal sort of territory...You don't see this sort of stuff very much on - or indeed at all - on Newsnight. One can understand why people might say "It is not our sort of thing." It is not.' Indeed, Paxman went so far as to say that the programme had never before tackled this sort of material.
So he appears to have been ambivalent about the story while his editor and reporters were  arguing and agonising over the fate of their work and how it appeared to be at the mercy of a totally inappropriate tribute show.
A year later, though, Paxman started to sit up and take notice.  A few days before ITV broadcast  its documentary, he urged his editor to run the story the Newsnight team had been preparing. The trailers and pre-publicity had clearly set him thinking.
Asked when he had concluded that the decision the previous year not to run the story was wrong, Paxman was open: 'To be perfectly frank..when the shit hit the fan...around the time the ITV thing aired.' This, he said, was because he thought the BBC had behaved  like other authority figures who disbelieved vulnerable institutionalised children who complained about abuse. Paxman didn't watch the ITV show, nor even Panorama's hairshirt follow-up.

At the height of the furore it seemed utterly bonkers that Peter Rippon, above, could seriously think  that the failings of Surrey Police and the CPS in not pursuing Savile was a better story than the stark facts his own team had unearthed. To any right-thinking individual, let alone journalist, it was clear as day that the real story was the exposure of a serial paedophile who had been a welcome guest in most people's living rooms, not about some bungling coppers.
But if you look at Rippon's assertion in the context of Paxman's evidence that it was not a 'Newsnight story' it doesn't seem quite so daft - a point Nick Pollard himself picked up on in his questioning of Paxman. Think of it in terms of a Guardian reporter finding a vicars and tarts story. Not quite our sort of thing, old chap.
Of course, this story is much, much bigger than any old vicar having his wicked way with any number of tarts. Rippon was at fault if he did not recognise as much, and  if he did, shouldn't he have  supported and encouraged his reporters in their investigations and helped them to find a more appropriate outlet within the BBC for their efforts? 

But there is another aspect. Who takes their own organisation to the cleaners? Would The Sunday Times have gone to town on the hacking story if it had uncovered it first? Once the Goodman-Mulcaire trial was over in 2007, anyone could have gone digging. Only The Guardian did, while the NI papers, in their ignorance, thought the rival paper was simply indulging in a witch hunt. Would the Telegraph have exposed Conrad Black's financial shenanigans? 
Should we really have expected a late-night current affairs programme with its small and dwindling audience  to blow this scandal open?
As journalists, we naturally think it should have done. But it's easy to say that from a distance and with hindsight.

The rest of the world loves the BBC;  other broadcasters and newspaper publishers - and many politicans - hate it. It tramples all over their territory without having to earn its keep. When advertising is slack, and newspapers have to offer their product in half a dozen formats with ever-decreasing resources,  it grates that the Beeb can run its worldwide operations, a dozen radio and television stations and a website - and pay the likes of Gary Lineker more than £1m a year - all at taxpayers' expense. The commercial TV and radio networks have the same antipathy.
The Beeb's enemies moan when it goes for ratings, complaining that it is competing for the mass market on a sloping playing field; they moan again when it splashes out a fortune on Jeremy Clarkson's Top Gear antics (which I believe are the corporation's biggest source of international revenue); and they moan still more when it makes niche programmes for tiny audiences - why is the taxpayer funding entertainment for the minority?

Jeremy Paxman, who is reported to be one of 15 in the 'half-million club', belatedly found his journalistic scruples offended by the spiking of the Newsnight story, yet by the time of the Nick Pollard inquiry he was happy to blast off about the entire organisation. His perception of the way the BBC is run may be accurate, but it still leaves a nasty taste. If it's so terrible, why does he stay?
Emperor Chris Patten has also denounced the top-heavy structure of the corporation, which has a budget of £750m and employs nearly 8,000 people. Patten has been in charge of this unweildy and apparently ungovernable empire throughout the Savile saga, yet he speaks -  as  Dan Sabbagh pointed out on Twitter - as though it had nothing to do with him.

It is open season on the BBC. When it comes to Jimmy Savile, the corporation has got a heck of a lot frighteningly and disgracefully wrong. But as you read Saturday's newspaper accounts, with their Paxo pix and 'BBC is pathetic' headings, listen for the sound of axes grinding in the background.

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