The International Forum for Responsible Media Blog

The Savile affair and the media – the watchdog which didn’t bark

It now appears that the late Sir Jimmy Savile was a rapist and sex abuser who may have had hundreds of victims over a period of nearly 50 years.  He not only worked with children on television but was, apparently, given uncontrolled access to vulnerable patients in several hospitals.

As with the sex abuse by priests and in children’s homes which has come to light in recent decades, this shows a failure of complaint and protection mechanisms on a grand scale.  But what, if anything, does it tell us about the media in modern Britain?

Well, although they have not been quick to acknowledge it, there was a collective failure by the British media to investigate and bring to light long term criminal conduct by a high profile public figure.  The media collectively failed in its role as a public watchdog. In the Guardian last week Michael White asked “why didn’t the tough tabloids nail him?” – although the same question must be asked of the broadsheets and the broadcast media.

The reasons why Savile was not “nailed” are complex. White’s colleague Roy Greenslade pointed out that

“despite the weirdness, Savile was hugely popular, most obviously for his untiring work for charity. Did the beneficiaries of his fund-raising activities also turn a blind eye?”

Greenslade goes on to remind us of the public and press adulation at the time of Savile’s death, across the media, from the Sun, the Mirror, the Daily Mail to the Guardian.

From time to time, the rumours about Savile did reach the public.   There was Louis Theroux’s 2000 programme “When Louis met Jimmy” – broadcast, note, by BBC2 – in which the allegations of paedophilia were raised.   When asked about this issue, Savile replied:

“How do they know whether I am or not? How does anybody know whether I am? Nobody knows whether I am or not. I know I’m not, so I can tell you from experience that the easy way of doing it when they’re saying ‘Oh, you have all them children on Jim’ll Fix It’, say ‘Yeah, I hate ‘em.’

The Telegraph obituary reported that “Rumours of under-age sex circulated for some years” and a number of commentators have, in recent weeks, reported hearing them.

But the rumours were not followed up by investigative journalists.  There appeared to be no substantial evidence against Savile – who was powerful and doubtless cunning in his choice of victims.  Roy Greenslade mentions a “spiked” 1994 Sunday Mirror story where the lawyers advised that there was not sufficient evidence to publish.  It is noteworthy that no similar suggestion has been made by former News of the World journalists – and it appears that the paper which prided itself on exposing the misdemeanours of celebrities (and, in particular, on the exposure of paedophiles) preferred to spend its time and money on adulterous footballers rather than alleged criminal activity by a “national treasure”.

This was a collective failure of the media to investigate a matter of public interest and importance.  As with the failure of the mainstream French press to expose Dominique Strauss Kahn, the problem was not restrictive laws but the problems of mounting a direct challenge to a powerful and popular public figure.  The story reminds us of the need for strong public interest investigative journalism which does not shy away from taking on the strong.

The lack of media self-examination on these issues is disturbing but not altogether surprising.  It is unfortunately even less surprising that the serial failure of the press and police to investigate Savile’s wrongdoing has been turned into an attack on the BBC and the Leveson Inquiry.  We have already had a post about the “Daily Mail’s” absurd call for Leveson to investigate the BBC.  Two other contributions to the “debate” can be mentioned.

First, in the “Observer”, Peter Preston has a piece entitled “BBC shouldn’t need tabloid ‘permission’ to probe Jimmy Savile allegations“.  He suggests that the failure of “Newsnight” to broadcast its Savile investigation in November 2011 was the result of the “codes” governing broadcasters

“Here’s the curse of the codes, then. You can never do a straightforwardly interesting story because straight-forward lacks proper portent. You can never find a celebrity far out of order unless his tale carries weighty lessons. You can’t touch a screaming-headline saga of human beastliness unless some otherwise deplorable organ has broached it first“.

This is arrant nonsense.  Whatever the reasons for “Newsnight’s” failure to run the Savile story the “codes” was not one of them.  This was not “celebrity tittle tattle” it was an exposure of criminal misconduct.  One reason not to broadcast might have been a lack of evidence – the very same reason which seems to have held the tabloids back.  It should be remembered that the only general airing of the allegations against Savile in his lifetime came on a Louis Theroux BBC2 programme and that the “damn burst” as result of an ITV documentary.   The failure to expose has nothing to do with “codes”.

Second, there is a characteristic contribution from former News of the World deputy editor, Neil Wallis.  It might have been thought that Mr Wallis would be offering an apology for the failure of his newspaper to expose Savile’s wrongdoing. Far from it.  Rather, according to Mr Wallis, the Savile story shows us the “Danger of Leveson Inquiry”. He imagines what would have happened if the Sun had printed the Savile story – but had lost the case in court.  Sir Jimmy would then have complained to Lord Justice Leveson:

“just think what airtime he would have given Saint Jimmy. And that, in a nutshell, is why His Lordship is going to ensure that a whole load more Jimmy Saviles are going to get away with evil in the future. Because Post-Leveson the British press are simply going to be too frightened to even risk that kind of expose any more”.

Have you followed this? If the Sun had actually investigated and published the story (which it didn’t) and if there had been a case which it had lost (presumably because it had published without sufficient evidence) then the Leveson Inquiry might have been interested in the case and would make recommendations which would mean that in future the Sun would be too frightened to make the expose (which it was, in fact, too frightened to make pre-Leveson).

This tabloid logic leaves us scratching our heads.  It is the old story of the terrified press with its archive of unpublished public interest stories – which it has, apparently, been deterred from using out of fear of an evil regulator.  So, the press failure to investigate and print a public interest story was apparently due to the retrospective baleful influence of Lord Justice Leveson!

In truth, the problem is not “codes” or Lord Justice Leveson.  The problem is a media which has, over many years, neglected its role as a public watchdog.  The terrible Savile story reminds us of the need for a free and fearless press: one which does, indeed, speak truth to power. Lord Justice Leveson indicated on many occasions during his Inquiry hearings that he was acutely conscious of this issue. It is likely any recommendation for independent regulation with statutory underpinning which he makes will contain protection and support for journalists who have the courage to expose future Saviles.

1 Comment

  1. Felix Labinjo

    The disturbing aspect concerning the Jimmy Saville matter is that those who knew or suspected that he was behaving in an inappropriate manner with children did nothing to help those children. Ever since when has the popularity of a celebrity prevented the press and media from reporting on a public interest matter?

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