BBC Scandal Exposes Cover-Up of Host Jimmy Savile’s Pedophilia, Fueling Public Broadcaster’s Foes
A major media scandal has toppled the head of the BBC over the network’s handling of two reports on sex abuse, wrongly implicating a politician in one, and killing a report on its own popular BBC host, the late Jimmy Savile. One year after his death, Savile has been accused of abusing potentially hundreds of victims, while the BBC stayed silent. We’re joined by three guests: Lark Turner, who has been researching and writing about the BBC scandal involving Jimmy Savile for the New York Times; Tim Gopsill, a longtime British reporter who warns that much of the criticism directed at the BBC’s handling of this scandal comes from conservative media outlets in the U.K. who want to see the network dismantled and defunded; and Donald Findlater, a sexual abuse spokesperson for the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and director of Stop It Now! U.K. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today with a media scandal engulfing the British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC. The director general has resigned amidst mounting questions over the BBC’s handling of two child sex-abuse reports. Earlier this month, one of the BBC’s flagship programs, Newsnight, broadcast a report that wrongly implicated a politician in child sex-abuse scandals. After the report aired, the victim saw a photograph of the politician and said he was not the man who abused him. In his resignation speech on Saturday, former BBC director general George Entwistle admitted the report reflected poor journalistic standards.
GEORGE ENTWISTLE: In the light of the fact that the director general is also the editor-in-chief and ultimately responsible for all content, and in light of the unacceptable journalistic standards of the Newsnight film broadcast on Friday, 2nd November, I have decided that the honorable thing to do is to step down from the post of director general.
AMY GOODMAN: Newsnight is also under scrutiny for failing to broadcast a report on child sex-abuse allegations against the popular BBC personality Jimmy Savile, who is accused of abusing potentially hundreds of victims. On Monday, head of news Helen Boaden and her deputy Stephen Mitchell also "stepped aside" in wake of the scandal. The editor of the segment, Peter Rippon, said he axed the investigation because of lack of evidence. Instead, a series of tributes to Jimmy Saville were aired across the BBC’s radio and TV network last year after his death.
JIMMY SAVILE: Here we go for a warm-up right now then. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Top of the Pops.
BBC NARRATOR: He was a pop pioneer.
JIMMY SAVILE: And how about that then?
BBC NARRATOR: And a multimillion-pound charity fundraiser. He made us belt up in the ’70s.
JIMMY SAVILE: Clunk click, every trip. Now then.
BBC NARRATOR: And fixed it for thousands of kids’ dreams to come true. For 60 years, Jimmy Savile has been part of our lives, a great British eccentric.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, last month, nearly a year after Jimmy Savile’s death, ITV released a documentary called Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile. This is Sue Thompson, a former BBC employee.
SUE THOMPSON: And I opened the door and I walked in, and Savile was sat in the chair with the right side of his body facing me. And there was a girl of about 14 with long brown hair, sat on his knee. He had his left arm up her skirt, and he had—he was kissing her. But what I distinctly remember, and that’s the image that sticks in my mind, was the fact, as I opened the door, he turned his head, and it was just his tongue that was just sort of coming out of her mouth that stuck in my mind. It was that image. So it wasn’t as a—it wasn’t just like a peck on the cheek, like she’d jumped on his knee and sort of done it spontaneously. It was a definite sexual advance to this girl.
AMY GOODMAN: The widening BBC scandal also has implications on the other side of the Atlantic here in the United States. Former BBC director general, Mark Thompson, is the incoming New York Times Company chief executive. He was at the helm of the BBC last year, when the investigation into Jimmy Savile’s alleged child sex abuse was dropped. Thompson claims he was unaware of the program’s investigation and had no involvement in the decision to cancel the report.
Well, for more, we go to London, where we’re joined via Democracy Now! video stream by Lark Turner. She’s been researching and writing about the BBC scandal involving Jimmy Savile for the New York Times, where she recently worked on the piece, "Complaint Ignored for Decades Is Heard at Last in BBC Abuse Case." The article profiles Deborah Cogger, who was a teenager in reform school where she says Jimmy Savile molested her and others. I should note we contacted the BBC for comment, but they did not respond by airtime.
We’re also joined by Tim Gopsill, longtime reporter who’s now editor of the Free Press magazine in London. He has written that much of the criticism directed at the BBC’s handling of this scandal comes from conservative media outlets in Britain who want to see the network dismantled and defunded.
And we’re joined by Donald Findlater. He’s a sexual abuse spokesperson for the Lucy Faithfull Foundation in Britain.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Lark, let’s begin with you. Lay out the Jimmy Savile story and the overall—we’re talking about two sex scandals that are bringing down the leadership of the BBC.
LARK TURNER: I mean, I’ve really focused on the Savile aspect of the scandal thus far. And what I can say is I think that this has been an enormous scandal. You’re talking about hundreds of people coming forward, most of them women, who are saying they were abused by him in schools, in hospitals, in psychiatric facilities across the country. And this is all coming to light now. So it’s a pretty exceptional case.
AMY GOODMAN: So tell us the story of the one woman that you profiled in the New York Times who had been trying to come forward for decades.
LARK TURNER: Yeah, you know, I mean, it’s a really tragic story. Deborah said she has been abused—was abused by Jimmy Savile at a reform school back in the ’70s. And for years, she said, whenever she heard him mentioned in connection with sexual abuse, she tried calling up newspapers, she tried getting her story out there, and nobody wanted to speak with her, nobody was interested. So, I think this is somebody who—this has been extremely challenging for her to finally get her story out.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, explain, though, what the situation was, why Jimmy Savile had anything to do with the school that Deborah Cogger attended.
LARK TURNER: Well, this is what’s really interesting. He had these longstanding relationships with different institutions across the country, including this school called the Duncroft School for Girls, which was a school for kind of troubled teenage girls who were also extremely intelligent. And he would come by with cigars and kind of crummy records that he got at the studio. And it sounds like—I mean, what the victims are saying now, and there are several of them who were at this school, they’re saying that he basically had free rein of the place.
AMY GOODMAN: And yet, she came forward, and she said then what was happening, but people told her to be quiet.
LARK TURNER: She said she was told to be quiet. She said that—you know, that others, other girls who were abused even sort of more horrifically, were shut in a room in isolation until they recanted. So, you know, this is—this was a pretty awful scandal.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from an ITV documentary called Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile. This is another BBC star, Esther Rantzen, who—coming to terms with Savile’s abuse.
ESTHER RANTZEN: What I know about child abuse is it comes off on the child, and the child takes a guilt, the child takes a responsibility. And I say to these women, don’t be angry with yourselves. It’s the adult to blame. And it’s the adult world that created this mythical figure who was above criticism, who was above blame. And of course he wasn’t. And I feel that we in television, in his world, in some way colluded with—with him as a child abuser, because I now believe that’s what he was.
AMY GOODMAN: That was BBC star Esther Rantzen. In Savile’s 1976 autobiography, Love is an Uphill Thing, he described how he and another man had spent the night naked in a caravan with a group of girls. The girls were young enough for their mothers to come looking for them. Savile wrote, quote, "I train my men well and, to date, we have not been found out. Which, after all, is the 11th commandment, is it not?" unquote.
I wanted to bring Tim—I wanted to bring Tim Gopsill into the conversation, editor of the Free Press magazine in London. Your piece, "The Savile Scandal Defines the BBC." The BBC not only killed the investigation of Savile, but it ended up just doing all these laudatory programs about him. Tim, why is it defining the BBC?
TIM GOPSILL: Because the one half of it didn’t know what the other half was doing. It’s a big organization. And as a broadcaster, it doesn’t just cover news and current affairs, it covers a whole range of broadcasting. It does comedy, entertainment, drama, game shows, quiz shows, reality. It does a lot, which means it’s a very, very big organization. And the journalistic side is kept deliberately separate, so that it isn’t controlled by management, so that it doesn’t have to toe any line laid down by anybody. It is kept at a kind of arm’s length to guarantee its independence.
The consequence was that while the Newsnight program was preparing its exposé of Savile, another half of the BBC was going ahead with these tributes. The cancellation of the Newsnight program, people are prepared to believe had nothing to do with the fact that the tributes were coming, as well. It just looked very bad for them. But the real problem wasn’t killing the Newsnight program. The thing the BBC really did wrong was to run all those tributes to a man who was pretty widely known, at least in kind of media circles, to have been a terrible pedophile for years and years.
AMY GOODMAN: At the time when the Newsnight investigation was axed, the BBC’s new chief executive, George Entwistle, was in charge of all television output. Late last month, he told Parliament he was informed about the Newsnight investigation in early December by Helen Boaden, the senior executive for news.
GEORGE ENTWISTLE: Helen said to me, "I wanted to tell you about" — this is — this is to the best of my recollection, because this is a conversation a long—a long time ago. "I wanted to tell you that Newsnight are looking at Jimmy Savile or investigating Jimmy Savile. And if it comes off, if it stands up," words to that effect, "it may have an impact on your Christmas schedule." And I said, "Well, thanks for letting me know. Update—please update me on—please update me." And what I meant by that was on whether or not it will be going ahead.
DAMIAN COLLINS: Was it normal for Helen Boaden to discuss Newsnight investigations with you?
GEORGE ENTWISTLE: No, relatively rare.
DAMIAN COLLINS: Right. So, what seriousness did you attach to what she said?
GEORGE ENTWISTLE: Well, I was—I was grateful to her for—for giving me—giving me the heads up. But the key message I took away from the conversation was that it wasn’t yet clear to Helen whether it was going to stand up or not, whether it was going to happen or not. And that was the key message I took away.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the BBC’s chief executive, George Entwistle, who just resigned after, what, something like 54 days in his position. Tim Gopsill, your response?
TIM GOPSILL: Yeah, well, the BBC’s response, unfortunately, when it comes under attack—and it comes under attack quite a lot—is to go into something of a panic. And what they did after the—after all the row about the Savile programs was they suspended the two people in charge of news and current affairs—that is Helen Boaden and Stephen Mitchell, who you’ve mentioned already—from having any involvement in further programs relating to Savile.
Well, the next thing that happened was that the Newsnight program, trying to cover for its mistake by killing the story in the past, found another pedophile story, completely separate, which came along, which actually—one which has been known about off the record for some years, and they ran this program, not naming but otherwise identifying a man who was a former Conservative politician as a pedophile himself. That story very quickly fell apart when it became clear that it wasn’t true, that it wasn’t this man at all. And that, by the way, was uncovered by a British newspaper. But probably the reason why the proper checks on the program weren’t made was precisely because the people in charge of news and current affairs had been suspended from being related—being having any involvement in Savile-related programming. So the checks and balances disappeared. So the program was out of control, and that’s why it’s in the mess it’s in now.
AMY GOODMAN: Wait, explain that again, Tim. Explain how it was, you think—I mean, this most recent explosive—
TIM GOPSILL: Well, Helen Boaden and Stephen Mitchell, who were suspended pending the investigation into the Savile program, suspended from having anything to do with any more programs relating to Savile or pedophilia—the program then made another completely different story, which was about this politician accused of pedophilia, and the proper checks weren’t there, because they’d been suspended. So it got on air when it shouldn’t have done.
AMY GOODMAN: And the way that this unfolded was that the young man who was at the center of the allegations was never shown a photograph of this politician; when he was, after it aired, he said, "This is not the man who abused me"?
TIM GOPSILL: And on top of that, even worse, the program makers didn’t contact the politician themselves to just even raise comment or to tell him—tell him that they were making the story. This is stuff that was alleged to have happened—well, it did happen 20 years ago, though obviously with other people. But they didn’t even check that. That was probably the biggest thing of all. It would have fallen down immediately.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go back to excerpts of a BBC Panorama special, which reveal how Newsnight journalists disagreed with editor Peter Rippon’s decision to ax their investigation into allegations of sexual abuse by the late BBC host Jimmy Savile. This is Newsnight producer Meirion Jones and reporter Liz MacKean.
MEIRION JONES: We weren’t asked to find more evidence or anything like that. We weren’t asked to get more people on camera. We were told to stop working on the story.
LIZ MACKEAN: The story we were investigating was very clear-cut. It was about Jimmy Savile being a pedophile and abusing his position, using his status as a charity fundraiser and television personality to get access to places where there were vulnerable teenage girls who he would abuse.
MEIRION JONES: I was sure the story would come out one way or another, and that if it did, the BBC would be accused of cover-up. In fact, I wrote an email to Peter saying, "The story is strong enough. And the danger of not running it is substantial damage to BBC reputation."
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Newsnight producer Meirion Jones and reporter Liz MacKean. Lark Turner, you’ve been researching this for quite some time. Jimmy Savile not only went after kids at schools that were honoring him and that he had free rein in, but he went after people, young people, within the BBC. Is that right?
LARK TURNER: [inaudible] do, allegedly, obviously, is take these girls, you know, the girls who would go along with it the most, from Duncroft, which is the school where Deborah attended, and then take them to his show and have them on his show. And so then they would be in his dressing room. And that is how—you know, that’s how the BBC is implicated as far as that goes.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Coleen Nolan, an English singer and television presenter. She was also the youngest member of the girl music group, The Nolans, in which she sang alongside her sisters. Coleen met Jimmy Savile during a Top of the Pops performance in 1979, when she was just 14 years old. She has now come forward saying Savile invited her to his hotel room, but her sisters stopped her from going. Coleen also said Savile was, quote, "all over" her.
NARRATOR: ...made it onto Top of the Pops, only to encounter the corporation’s eccentric uncle.
COLEEN NOLAN: I stood next to Jimmy Savile. And I was 14, and he was all over me.
JIMMY SAVILE: Ladies and gentlemen, there are more Nolans than meet the eye.
COLEEN NOLAN: You know, it was a bit like, eww, I don’t think I like it.
JIMMY SAVILE: This is a Nolan here, but she’s not old enough to join—
COLEEN NOLAN: But it’s funny, because then, you know, it’s family, because I could see my sisters glaring at him like, "You touch her, and we’ll kill you." And they would have, you know, and that’s where family come into it.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Donald Findlater into the conversation, sexual abuse spokesperson for the Lucy Faithfull Foundation in Britain. Your response to what’s going on at the BBC right now and those who say, "You know, it was a different time back then"?
DONALD FINDLATER: Look, I think it is difficult to view these outrageous circumstances from the '70s, ’80s, with the eyes of the ’70s and ’80s. We look through them now, and it's outrageous as to how Savile and others got away with what they did and how so many children were abused and weren’t either able to say anything or weren’t believed if they did. So, just too many bystanders doing nothing to keep children safe. And I do think things have changed a little.
But I think, my experience of the last six weeks in the U.K., every day, kind of new exposés, new kind of angles on what’s gone on, and I think that’s—there’s been some tremendous kind of value out of that sustained kind of story, simply because survivors in large numbers are coming through to survivor helplines, who have not been able to or had the confidence or courage to speak up before. But I run the Stop It Now! helpline in the U.K., so it’s modeled on a U.S. Stop It Now! check sexual abuse prevention helpline. We have 50 percent increase in calls over the last six weeks, not from survivors, but from members of the public who were noticing things going on around them or who were remembering things, sexual abuse things, or worries that they had about possible abuse that maybe a year ago or five years ago they noticed, and they did nothing then. And they’re saying today, "I regret that I did nothing. What can I do now?"
So—so I think, in terms of the public dialogue about the problem, you know, there’s a crisis right now. I hope that we start to learn some lessons. Some of those lessons ought to be that the scale of the problem in the U.K., certainly, in terms of sexual abuse—we know, as a child protection charity, one in six children in the U.K. experiences sexual abuse. Most politicians don’t want to hear that. Most members of police and social services don’t want to know, because they’d be overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge of that kind of problem.
I guess the challenge that we want to take, and have written to David Cameron, as a collection of children’s charities and survivor charities, is saying, "Prime Minister David Cameron, you need to get hold of this problem. You need to recognize the scale of it. Surely to goodness, this six weeks can’t have left you unmoved. We need to learn the lessons so that tomorrow’s children don’t suffer the harm that yesterday’s children suffered, because we can do prevention. We know some lessons that will help keep children safe. They just need to be much more available. Every parent needs some information, which they haven’t had in the past. So we have to have the public on side. We have to have, yes, police officers and social workers doing their job. But arresting our way out of this problem will never happen. It has to take politicians and the public working together to just—to get ahead of this issue and make sure future generations are safer than past generations have been.
AMY GOODMAN: Tim Gopsill, finally, of Free Press, how you feel this is being used in going after the BBC, though these are extremely scandalous, what has taken place here?
TIM GOPSILL: Yes. The BBC is being circled by sharks all the time in the commercial media. Because it is such a big and such a popular organization, they are very jealous of its audiences, and they want to get their hands on them themselves. So whenever something like this happens, you get the commercial media, both print and other broadcasting in Britain, criticizing the BBC heavily, because they want it weakened. They want it reduced so that it doesn’t take up so much of the market.
They now also have a lot of support in government, in Parliament. We have a Conservative-led government in Britain now. The main—the main people in this are of course the Murdoch press, but there are other [inaudible] companies, as well, who use their—the Murdoch press use their newspapers to attack the BBC, as do other right-wing newspapers, all the time to try and weaken it. The BBC needs to be much stronger in standing up to these criticisms and these attacks. And supporters of the BBC, like ourselves, although the BBC is making terrible mistakes, it’s supportive criticism that we make, when what the BBC needs is more support to be better, not more attacks to make it even worse.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. Tim Gopsill is editor of the Free Press magazine in London. Lark Turner, thanks so much for joining us. We’ll link to your piece at the New York Times, writing on the BBC scandal involving Jimmy Savile for the New York Times. Her latest piece is called "Complaint Ignored for Decades Is Heard at Last in BBC Abuse Case." And thanks so much to Donald Findlater, a sexual abuse spokesperson for the Lucy Faithfull Foundation in Britain.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a new HBO documentary on pedophilia and the Catholic Church. We’ll be joined by the Oscar Award-winning director Alex Gibney. Stay with us.