Last December I received a telephone call concerning Jimmy Savile’s apparent sexual abuse of underage girls in the 1970s. The details I heard were pretty chilling, but the negative reaction when I tried (unsuccessfully) to report the claims in the national press was equally troubling. There is every indication that the Leveson inquiry into press standards was to blame.
My source said that a Newsnight investigation into Savile’s activities had been shelved by the BBC in mysterious circumstances and encouraged me to find out more. I learnt that Newsnight had heard that Savile and two other celebrities, both still alive, had abused many different girls on BBC premises and in the Surrey countryside, when Savile visited an all-girls approved school called Duncroft. Newsnight also discovered that Savile had been questioned over sex crimes by Surrey police in 2007.
The claims had been corroborated several times over by former Duncroft pupils; two had even waived their anonymity to talk in front of the cameras about their experiences. By any standards Newsnight’s investigation was worthy of national attention, but the programme’s editor, Peter Rippon, had killed the story. Why? One theory I heard was that it clashed with tribute programmes to Savile scheduled for Christmas week.
On 21 December the BBC press office confirmed to me that Newsnight had undertaken a Savile investigation. Without commenting on details, they said it had been axed for editorial reasons. With this confirmation, I assumed the story would sail into any newspaper. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Over two weeks I contacted six national news desks. One after another rejected the idea. I consistently suggested that it would not be necessary for anyone to accuse Savile outright of abusing children, simply to report that Newsnight had jettisoned its exposé despite significant-seeming findings, of which I knew quite a bit. Newsnight’s groundwork could then be developed, or perhaps other victims would come forward.
Yet it was futile. Some papers told me that because Savile had been dead less than two months the story was ‘in bad taste’, whatever its provenance. Others said that if the police hadn’t prosecuted Savile in his lifetime, it wouldn’t be worth pursuing him
now. And a couple of news desks judged that material like this was ‘best avoided’ for the time being.
I assumed that they were referring to the time of year — Christmas — but it was the seventh and final paper I contacted that gave what I now believe to be the real reason I was dismissed by all seven. The senior executive I spoke to admitted that because his editor was about to appear in front of Lord Leveson’s inquiry into press ethics, then at its height, it would be unwise to run the piece. Being seen to be behaving responsibly was vital if the press was to avoid statutory regulation. Running a provocative story about Savile, then still considered a saintlike figure, might therefore be a mistake.
Having the story rejected by the national press seemed more alarming than the initial call I had taken about Newsnight’s shelved investigation. Here was the deputy editor of a national title telling me that publishing a controversial article would be a bad idea in case it showed his editor and the wider industry in an unflattering light. The story’s public interest was of secondary importance.
As a freelance journalist I was powerless to argue. But as I reflected over Christmas that the BBC tribute programmes praising Savile were being broadcast by the very organisation which had been critically investigating him a few weeks earlier, it was remarkable to me that much of the press was totally uninterested in this fact. A key opportunity for the press to hold the BBC to account — perhaps even to save the corporation from the trouble in which it now finds itself — had been missed.
Last April I made a freedom of information request to the BBC asking for any records of written communications or meetings among four BBC executives, including the then director-general Mark Thompson, concerning the Newsnight investigation and allegations that Savile had molested underage girls on BBC premises in the 1970s.
On 18 May the request was denied so I rang Mr Thompson’s office and told an aide, Jessica Cecil, that I wanted to talk to him about the request and also about claims made to Newsnight that girls were abused on BBC premises by Jimmy Savile in the 1970s. Ms Cecil referred me to the BBC press office. Last week she admitted that she did not pass on the details of my call to Mr Thompson. Instead, she told the BBC director of communications, Paul Mylrea. He did not pass word of my call to Mr Thompson either.
Eventually only ITV was prepared to confront this difficult issue, with a Savile exposé that triggered the current storm. Perhaps in retrospect the conclusion will be drawn that newspapers, lacking in confidence because of the Leveson inquiry, had to wait for someone else to fire the starting gun before they could fully investigate a story whose main ingredients they had known for months.
Several commentators have argued that, just as the BBC failed in its duty to broadcast the results of Newsnight’s six-week inquiry, so some newspapers failed for decades in theirs to investigate rumours about Savile. This criticism may be valid, though it seems Savile’s powerful position and aggressive legal stance whenever challenged were central factors in his escaping justice. The possibility that he blackmailed others also cannot be ruled out. However, with hindsight it seems implausible that newspapers wouldn’t have been interested in this material. So much work had already been done. The Leveson inquiry, and its perceived threat to a bruised industry, prevented at least one national newspaper from reporting a story which its editor may now regret he did not run. If other papers had the same reason, they did not admit it, but I now believe that it must have been the primary factor which held them back.
The irony is that Lord Leveson is focused almost solely on the press, whose commercial fortunes are diminishing all of the time. The BBC, with its guaranteed income of £3.5 -billion a year, has largely avoided this televised inquiry. And yet the BBC, like many newspapers, made use of private detectives, spending £310,000 on them over 230 separate occasions in six years. Perhaps if the BBC had been included fully in the Leveson inquiry, newspapers would have felt differently about reporting on what must rank as the most serious scandal in its history.
With the story rejected by the mainstream press, it was Richard Ingrams, the 75-year-old editor of the Oldie, who felt able to run the piece. He commissioned me without hesitation and the story was published in February.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 3 November 2012