Which is the worse crime, would you say: eavesdropping on celebrities’ answerphones? Or hosting and covering up for a ruthless predatory paedophile ring — led by your biggest, most heavily promoted star — over a period of four decades?
Mm, me too. In fact, I’d say the Savile affair is as close as we’ll ever get to proving that God really hates the BBC. I mean, the timing is far too perfect to be coincidental, isn’t it? First we get Leveson — essentially a stitch-up by the BBC and the Guardian to entrench the power of the bien-pensant establishment, increase regulation and destroy the free market (especially Rupert Murdoch). Then, just when the tofu-eating turbine-huggers think they’ve won — zing! — a lightning bolt from heaven in the form of a scandal so sordid, so vast, so compromising that it makes Leveson look about as inconsequential as gossip overheard at the laundrette while waiting for your smalls to finish their tumbledry.
Full marks, obviously, to ITV for setting the ball rolling earlier this month with Exposure: the Other Side of Jimmy Savile. But full marks, too, to Panorama (Monday) for a belated follow-up as hard-hitting and brutally frank and riveting as any documentary I’ve seen. Some anti-BBC types on Twitter seemed to think that this was just another weaselly exercise in BBC face-saving. Really? I thought it was savage: utterly, grippingly, almost unbearably so, like watching a once-revered pack leader suddenly stumbling and being torn to pieces by the junior wolves.
Usually when the BBC does self-criticism, it’s just an exercise in faux-openness and pretend accountability. On Radio 4’s Feedback, for example, listeners are permitted to be heard raging about vital matters such as the use of intrusive background music on documentaries; then a producer comes on to respond that intrusive background music is a matter of taste. Meanwhile, the issues where the BBC is seriously, dangerously at fault — its ingrained political correctness, its grotesque institutional bias on everything from Israel to ‘climate change’ — continue to be swept under the carpet.
Not here, though. The Panorama team really went for it — even to the point of ambushing their very own director-general (who, incidentally, is toast, I reckon) on his way to work and catching him sounding far more shifty and evasive than if they’d opted for a formal interview in his office. Nor were they going to be fobbed off by senior Beeb apologists like Kevin Marsh, who claimed that the reason Newsnight’s Savile investigation was shelved was that the story wasn’t quite strong enough. What it needed, Marsh averred, was proof that there had been a failure of judgment by the police in deciding not to press charges against Savile.
‘Yeah, right,’ was Panorama’s response. ‘So you’re trying to tell us it’s not a sufficient story that the BBC’s biggest star of the Seventies — and his revolting paedophile mates — had frequent sex in BBC dressing-rooms with highly unwilling underage kids who’d been lured in part by the réclame and apparent trustworthiness of the BBC? And that the BBC turned a blind eye to this depravity for 40 years? What planet are you living on?’
Marsh’s response, though, is entirely characteristic of what is wrong with the BBC. Smitten with its self-image as Britain’s beloved, historic national broadcaster, cushioned by the compulsory licence fee, puffed up with the notion that its values are universal and noble and its causes just, the BBC has long since lost its moral compass. If the tacit conclusion of Leveson was that, in future, our national media debate should be conducted by responsible, respectable, state-sanctioned institutions such as the BBC rather than grubby, unlicensed tabloids from the out-of-control commercial sector, then that conclusion is starting to look about as dodgy as one of Uncle Jimmy’s after-show knees-ups.
Meanwhile, on that nasty Mr Murdoch’s evil, subscriber-only Sky Atlantic channel, there’s a great new series called Girls (Monday). Because it’s about the tangled lives and carnal adventures of four twentysomething girls in New York you could call it Sex and the City for Generation Y, except, being an HBO production, it’s better and more sophisticated than that. The sex in this case is colourful background rather than the main event and the tone is more muted, less desperately eager to please. Also there’s much less high-end footwear.
It was created by its 26-year-old star Lena Dunham, whom one possibly ought to hate being as she’s so precociously talented but whose girl-next-door looks, guilelessness and dry humour keep the show nicely grounded in reality. I’m not yet so convinced by the other characters, least of all the pretty girl with the floaty hats and Louis Vuitton accessories who is supposed to be English but is like no English girl I’ve encountered. (Then, again, it turns out the girl playing her, Jemima Kirke, was raised in New York. Her dad was the drummer in the rock band Free.) But no doubt, given a few more episodes, they’ll all become like well-loved friends. Or Friends, even.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 27 October 2012