The monster in the BBC's midst

When you watch old TV clips it seems so obvious - and shameful: why hadn't they realised?

When you watch old TV clips it seems so obvious - and shameful: why hadn't they realised?

HE WAS the biggest television star in Britain, courted by prime ministers, princes and the Pope. And now the millions of people who had watched, laughed at and grew up with the late Jimmy Savile, OBE, KCSG, are trying to come to terms with the fact that he had been sexually abusing under-age girls for 50 years. It was shocking, people agreed, and yet somehow not surprising: when you watch old TV clips of him fondling star-struck children, it all seems so obvious - and shameful: why hadn't they realised?

More to the point, why did the BBC fail to investigate the rumours that we now know were rife in the '60s and '70s: that their golden goose, kingpin of top-rating shows Top of the Pops and Jim'll Fix it, was entertaining young girls from studio audiences in his dressing room and at post-show parties, delivered to him by program assistants. Or that when he was out on the road running for charity he took young fans to bed in his campervan.

And after Savile's death last year, why was an investigation into his predatory activities by the BBC's flagship current affairs show, Newsnight, suddenly dropped - to be followed a month later by two fulsome tribute programs?

And why did the BBC file away incendiary evidence gathered by Newsnight producer Meirion Jones and reporter Liz MacKearn, only to see the same material used by its arch competitor, ITV, in a report screened a year later, which delivered compelling testimonies from more of Savile's alleged victims.

These questions preoccupied Britain last week in the wake of a BBC Panorama report - ''What the BBC Knew'' - watched on Monday night by 5 million people. Amid a cascade of theories about conspiracy and cover-up, the BBC's director general, George Entwhistle, and BBC Trust chairman Lord Chris Patten were summoned for questioning by the British government's culture, media and sport committee.

Why did Entwhistle, director of vision for BBC One at the time of the Newsnight investigation, not ask what was in it? He did not want to show ''undue interest''.

Why was a blog by Newsnight editor Peter Rippon, explaining his reasons for abandoning the investigation, endorsed by the BBC and then three weeks later criticised for ''inaccuracies''. Entwhistle was ''disappointed'' by the inaccuracies, he told the committee, and had asked Rippon to ''step aside'' pending an inquiry.

It is a process all too reminiscent of the same committee's hearings earlier this year into phone hacking at News International. And as with the News scandal, the stain is spreading through the ranks of executives who ''weren't aware'', reaching across the Atlantic to former director general Mark Thompson in New York, about to take up a post as CEO of The New York Times - an appointment that now looks in jeopardy.

David Attenborough and acclaimed foreign correspondent John Simpson, both leviathans of broadcasting, have pronounced it the worst crisis to hit the BBC for 50 years.

But Steve Hewlett, a former Newsnight editor, now a columnist and presenter of The Media Show on BBC Radio, disagrees: ''If it could be proved that BBC management quashed the Newsnight program for corporate reasons, that would be very serious,'' he says, ''but there is no evidence they did. Their crime has been not a cover-up but the spectacularly incompetent way they have handled the fallout.''

Hewlett thinks the program was probably pulled for genuine editorial reasons: ''Hindsight is a dangerous thing: we know now that there are probably hundreds of women out there who were abused by Savile, but did it look like that to Peter Rippon a year ago? His team had just one woman on camera and other witnesses they'd never actually met. If you were an editor you might say, 'That's not quite enough'.''

The real question for Rippon and the BBC, says Hewlett, is why, having pulled the program, they just sat on it. ''That is the truly extraordinary thing.''

But while British journalists have been obsessed with the Newsnight affair, the public is more interested and appalled by the revelations contained in the two television exposes. The allegations are bad enough: that Savile not only cherry-picked young fans for sexual favours, but targeted the most vulnerable - in hospitals, at Broadmoor secure psychiatric institution and at Duncroft, an approved school for emotionally disturbed girls.

As a celebrity volunteer and fund-raiser he was often given his own flat or dressing room where he took his victims. ''The younger the better,'' was Savile's motto, according to his biographer Dan Davies. But Savile was not particularly secretive about his activities - staff at those institutions now seem, at some level anyway, to have known what he was up to. So why did nobody do anything?

One by one, Savile's former BBC colleagues and producers were hauled out of retirement as Panorama presenter Shelley Joffre asked that question.

As a young reporter, Martin Young joined Savile on a charity run and found him lying on the bed in his campervan with a teenage girl. ''I thought he was a pervert,'' Young told Joffre. Did he think about reporting it? ''No, it never crossed my mind, and I take my share of blame for that.''

Reporter Bob Langley saw girls - ''12, 13, possibly 14, definitely not 15'' - leaving the campervan: ''[Savile] indicated to me in a nudge nudge sort of way he had just had sex with one of them ? Should I have reported it? What would have happened? He would have said it was a joke and that would be the end of it.''

On one show Savile brought his friend Gary Glitter - later a convicted paedophile - onto the set where they both sat cuddling young girls: ''I'm giving girls away here,'' chortled Savile, ''we've got them from everywhere, we've even got some from Broadmoor.'' He was routinely filmed in clinches: ''The BBC bought into Savile's sexually suggestive style big time,'' said Joffre.

In 1973 the controller of BBC1 set up a meeting with Savile to question him about rumours that were circulating. Derek Chinnery was then head of Radio One. ''It was naive of us,'' he admitted, ''obviously the man was going to deny it if the man has denied it, you don't go out and hound him. I know it sounds terrible ?''

It does now, of course, but that was a long time ago. Stewart Purvis, former CEO of ITV, worked at the BBC in the '70s: ''We weren't all as concerned about codes and best practice in those days,'' he says, ''In fact, I remember being sexually harassed by the head of BBC News.''

Karin Ward was 14 when Jimmy Savile singled her out at Duncroft, offering her ''cigarettes for sex'' or a trip to a TV centre if she would give him oral sex. She didn't tell anyone because, as Dan Davies told Panorama: ''Who is going to take the word of a girl from an approved school?''

Those girls are adults now and, thanks to investigations - albeit belated - by police and media, they are now telling the secrets that have haunted them for up to 50 years.

Alicia Alinia, a solicitor with Slater & Gordon, said the firm had more than 30 potential clients in the case. ''Today the email box is full again. A lady told me on the phone last night, 'I've buried this for 40 years, now it's clear to me I was not the only one','' she said.

''Money is not the aim. What they want is recognition, truth and accountability.''

Three inquiries have been announced - two by the BBC and one into why an earlier investigation into Savile by Surrey police in 2007 was not followed up by the criminal prosecution service. By Thursday this week a criminal investigation by Scotland Yard and other forces had 300 potential cases on file. ''There is no doubt Savile was one of the worst paedophiles in criminal history,'' said Commander Peter Spindler, head of the investigation. Arrests of other abusers linked to Savile are expected imminently, some of them apparently household names.

What does this mean for the BBC? Commentators agree that the fuss over the canned Newsnight report will blow over but that an investigation into the culture of the light entertainment department will prove ''really damaging''.

Simon Jenkins wrote in The Guardian: ''The corporation's survival depends on its self-abasement. Anything less than total disclosure would be inexcusable.''

It may not be enough. On BBC Radio's Law in Action, retiring appeal court judge Sir Stanley Burnton was asked what the BBC should do - set aside large sums of money, or prepare to defend themselves? ''They should be talking to their solicitors,'' he said.

UK star in a nutshellJAMES Savile was born in 1926 and died in October 2011, two days before his 84th birthday.

He claimed to be the first DJ and managed dance halls in the 1950s. He joined Radio Luxembourg in 1957, then BBC Radio 1 in 1968. From 1960 he presented television's first Top of the Pops chart show. In his top rating show Jim'll Fix It he made it possible for children, often disabled or ill, to realise their dreams.

He was a one time wrestler, all round sportsman and raised an estimated #40 million for hospitals. He was awarded the OBE, knighted by the Queen and by the Holy See for services to the Catholic Church.

The flamboyant, platinum-haired, cigar-smoking Savile made a career as an eccentric. Despite his claims to have bedded many women, he was a lone figure, devoted to his mother with whom he lived until her death. He said his statement that he hated children was made in order to deflect attempts to brand him a paedophile.

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