The lead story today on the Today Programme was the leak of Dame Janet Smith’s draft report into cases of sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile linked to the BBC. Never an organisation to be averse to navel gazing, BBC web coverage today mentions conclusions in the draft report that the corporation had a “deferential culture”, “untouchable stars” and “above the law” managers.
I can see how miffed the beeb’s top brass must be over this leak by News website Exaro: “BBC head Lord Hall said lessons would be learned from a “dark chapter”. Dame Janet’s team said they were “disappointed” Exaro had published the “early draft”. A statement said the document was out of date and significant changes had been made to its contents and conclusions. The document should not have been made public and cannot be relied upon in any circumstances………”
I’m surely not alone in being fed up with the cliché of lesson-learning being used as an excuse for institutional mistakes. Experiential learning has its place, but you might think that all those clever people who walk the corridors of the BBC might have worked out was going on and taken action to stop it, rather than now having to learn lessons from the consequences of their failures.
Former BBC executive Will Wyatt, sometime Managing Director, BBC Television (1991-6) and Chief Executive BBC Broadcast (1996-9), came on the today programme this morning in a brave attempt to calm this latest moral panic, claiming that he definitely had not heard rumours of Savile’s wrongdoing when he was in the BBC. I have personal respect for Will, who was one of the few people who even gave me the the time of day and was kind to me when, in 1976, I turned up as an inexperienced assistant producer, tasked with directing a series of live programmes he was producing for BBC2. It was good to hear his reasonable and articulate version of events this morning, and though it seems preposterous that a BBC senior executive could claim ignorance of something like Savile’s dirty work, I do believe him.
Apart from my impression of Will as an honorable man, I believe him because my own experiences as a mere minion in the BBC between 1973 and 1983 make his claim credible and unsurprising.
One day, probably in 1975, I was, as usual, queuing for my lunch in the TV Centre canteen (sorry, 2nd floor restaurant,) when there was a bit of a commotion in one part of the room as a bunch of children, presumably participants in that week’s edition of Jim’ll Fix It, were led to their places by the man himself, amid much palaver and general showing off. I can’t recall precisely the brief conversation I had with a fellow queue shuffler, or indeed who it was with, but the gist was, in today’s jargon, there goes the well-known child abuser, we all know what he gets up to.
I have to admit I was mildly shocked, as this was a new one on me. Part of my job at the time involved viewing recorded programmes before they were aired, particularly children’s programmes. Based on that experience I suppose I thought Savile was devoid of talent as a television performer, a rather creepy kind of guy and a man suffering from a serious overdose of ego, but I had until then not seen him as anything more sinister.
By that time Will Wyatt may not have had the kind of personal interactions I and others had daily in the lower orders of the BBC (still run on legacy quasi-military lines), whether we liked it or not. My daily contacts were with technicians, dinner ladies, actors who lunched in the canteen, presentation department colleagues. As a man busy climbing the production ladder it’s quite credible that he could easily have been unaware of the Savile rumours; the BBC is a very big place after all.
Years later, before the scandal broke, when were living in West Yorkshire, I was treated to the sight of Savile in a loud track suit, jogging alongside a busy A65, accompanied by a posse of what might have been bodyguards, admirers or perhaps senior execs, for all I know. I think he might have been sporting the legendary cigar, but maybe that’s just my pesky memory playing tricks again.
My dog, a proven judge of character, was clearly upset, and when neighbours told me that Savile often used this major road as a jogging route despite the obvious environmental disadvantages, I did bore them with my rather my pathetic BBC anecdote, but apart from that I don’t recall the subject ever coming up much. So I guess I come into the category of ex-BBC people who had heard the rumours about Savile, but had done nothing about them.
The Today programme discussion this morning rightly asked the question why nobody ever blew the whistle on this man until his death. I can imagine what might have happened if I had reported up (the most holy duty of all BBC employees.) It’s just a rumour Peter, do you have any proof? Who told you this? Oh, and it’s probably not a good idea to blow whistles when you are on weekly contracts, you know……………..)
There are many reasons why the British don’t blow whistles at work – fear of reprisals, fear of losing your job, fear of standing out from the crowd etc., but surely this cuts no ice with Savile’s victims. His extraordinary not-so-secret career as a serial child abuser was only made possible by people with far a higher chance of being believed than I, in the BBC and elsewhere, failing to shop him.
To judge by today’s social media reaction, most people find it absurd to suggest that The BBC did not know what was going on: “So, everyone in the country had heard the rumours about Jimmy Savile, EXCEPT his employers. Not even slightly credible.”
This person is probably right, but it’s a mistake to underestimate the real and growing distance between senior management, who have power, and those who do know what’s really going on but have little or no power other than to conceal what they know and await the consequences.
The BBC also stands accused of allowing its managers to believe they are above the law. I fear they are not alone. Between 2000 and 2014 I worked in a British University which continues to grow in student numbers and reputation. During that time, as a university teacher, I experienced or witnessed a few instances of management incompetence, often unchallenged or whitewashed, including a request by a line manager to help get rid of an allegedly troublesome colleague. When I pointed out that even making such a request was probably illegal, his response was that if we all obeyed the law, nothing would ever get done. I later reported this conversation to an internal enquiry which touched on this manager’s competence. Guess what, no action was taken.
I am also influenced by my own brief experience as the manager of a training school which collapsed partly because one of my staff was accused of behaving badly to publicly funded clients, without my knowledge. My genuine ignorance of what had been happening was no defence, so I carried the can, but the experience taught me how easy it is to fool your manager. It also made me determined never to be a manager again.