It should be easy to admire the BBC’s handling of the Savile scandal. Two of its journalists, Liz MacKean and Meirion Jones, broke the story. Panorama then ran a devastating account of the corporation’s failings which is still worth watching online.
This morning the Today programme properly led with the leak of Dame Janet Smith’s report on the multiple rapes Savile committed on BBC premises, which again showed an admirable capacity for self-criticism. Unfortunately, that is all it did.
Organisations and individuals are defined not just by their mistakes but how they react to their mistakes. Do they deny and bluster? Or do they confront their flaws and try to make amends?
The best people in the BBC behaved superbly. Their editors were, of course, a disgrace.
I say ‘of course,’ but the story of how the BBC punished its journalists for telling the truth about Savile has hardly been covered. The presenter on the Today programme got away with saying that short-term contracts might make modern workers at the BBC even less likely to speak out now than 30 years ago. She did not have the courage to describe what had happened to real BBC journalists who had spoken out.
I’ve covered the story in the Observer, and so has Private Eye and Press Gazette. Few other have followed, in part, I suspect, because they know their managers would behave just as badly as the BBC managers did, if a similar crisis hit them.
The Savile story turned into a scandal in 2013 when Peter Rippon, the then editor of Newsnight, suppressed MacKean and Jones’s original report. All hell broke loose in the BBC. There was an inquiry. We were assured that lessons were learned, as we always are. Tony Hall, Director-General of the BBC, gave a soothing corporate line when he said today:
Dame Janet Smith’s report will be invaluable in helping us understand what happened and to help ensure that we do everything possible to avoid it happening again.
Rather than listening to Hall’s bureaucratic platitudes – as sincere as a prostitute’s smile – consider the record of what happened to BBC journalists who told the truth about Savile.
Liz MacKean: Resigned. ‘When the Savile scandal broke,’ she told me, ‘the BBC tried to smear my reputation. They said they had banned the film because Meirion and I had produced shoddy journalism. I stayed to fight them, but I knew they would make me leave in the end. Managers would look through me as if I wasn’t there. I went because I knew I was never going to appear on screen again.’
Meirion Jones: Took redundancy after his job on Newsnight mysteriously vanished. ‘People said they won’t sack you after Savile but they will make your life hell,’ he told Press Gazette. ‘Everyone involved on the right side of the Savile argument has been forced out of the BBC.’
Panorama: After its admirably rigorous documentary on the BBC’s failings, which did so much to restore the BBC’s reputation, BBC managers shifted Tom Giles, the editor of Panorama, out of news. Peter Horrocks, an executive who insisted throughout the scandal that the BBC must behave ethically, resigned to ‘find new challenges’. Clive Edwards, who as commissioning editor for current affairs oversaw the Panorama documentary, was demoted.
As for Peter Rippon and all the other managers who parroted the corporate line, well, naturally, not one of them has suffered.
Hall is not trying to ‘do everything possible to avoid it happening again,’ as he maintains. If he were, he would protect whistleblowers, not preside over a corporation where they are bundled out of a job when no one is watching.
The lesson of Savile to BBC staff , who are confronted with celebrities abusing children, or managers sexually harassing women, is to keep your head down, eyes averted, and mouth shut. If Hall and his predecessors were genuine, they would have ensured the careers of journalists who spoke out about Savile did not suffer. Instead, they punished the brave and rewarded the cowardly as so many institutions do.
I think I can understand why the BBC behaved the way it did. Enemies surround it. Indeed, as politics has careered towards the extremes, its enemies have grown in strength. The Tory press hates it. The Tory government denies it funds. Meanwhile supporters of Ukip, the SNP and Jeremy Corbyn betray their petty Stalinism when they descend into screaming conspiracy theories every time the BBC asks questions they would rather not hear or covers stories they would rather hush up. One employee told me that the management regarded Jones and MacKean as ‘traitors’ for giving the BBC’s enemies another pretext to attack it.
But then Tony Hall and his colleagues are no better than Nigel Farage, Alex Salmond or Jeremy Corbyn.
They, too, have refused to defend honest journalism.
They, too, have shot the messenger.
They simper and say they want to stop abuse, but have punished the men and women who exposed it. The rest of the media has looked the other way, as indeed has Dame Janet Smith. She failed to call any of the BBC journalists who broke news of the Savile scandal she is meant to be investigating. She did not ask how on earth we are meant to ‘learn the lessons’ and ensure that ‘never again’ will an abuser like Savile rape and grope with impunity when the lesson from the BBC is: blow the whistle and we will show you the door.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.