How celebrity child sex scandal has rocked the BBC

Updated 4:55 PM EDT, Mon October 22, 2012

Story highlights

Jimmy Savile was one of Britain's best-loved TV personalities, says Hooper

But in death the former BBC presenter now stands accused of being a pedophile

BBC also finds itself accused of complicity and a wider culture of harassment

Veteran publicist Max Clifford says abuse allegations long swirled around Savile

Editor’s Note: Simon Hooper has worked as a journalist covering international news, politics and sports for websites and publications including CNN, Al Jazeera, the New Statesman and Sports Illustrated.

London CNN —  

In life he was one of Britain’s best loved children’s television personalities, an icon of the pop music world, flamboyant friend of the famous, renowned for his eccentricities and honored for his tireless charity work.

But in death, Jimmy Savile now stands accused of being a pedophile who used his status and celebrity to prey on young girls throughout decades in the public spotlight, his gravestone already removed amid an outpouring of public revulsion. Prime Minister David Cameron has even suggested the removal of Savile’s knighthood might be considered in light of the allegations.

As presenter of “Jim’ll Fix It,” the BBC’s flagship Saturday teatime kids’ show from the mid-70s until the mid-90s, Savile cultivated an image as the nation’s kindly uncle who could make children’s dreams come true with a twirl of his trademark cigar.

Yet an ITV documentary – “Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile” – broadcast in early October portrayed the late star as a nightmarish figure whose sexual predilection for teenagers was known about, laughed off or suspected by many within the entertainment industry but never openly challenged.

Read more: Police probe hospital abuse claims against TV host

Simon Hooper
Simon Hooper

Since then the allegations against Savile, who died last year at the age of 84, have piled higher. London’s Metropolitan Police said Friday it had received hundreds of tips and had been in contact with 40 potential victims. “We have officially recorded 12 allegations of sexual offences but expect this number to grow,” the force said in a statement. “We continue to liaise with 14 forces.”

At least two hospitals closely associated with the star through his voluntary work also find themselves under scrutiny. Both hospitals expressed shock at the allegations and pledged to fully cooperate with police investigations.

And Savile has also been linked to the notorious and now defunct Haut de la Garenne children’s care home on the Channel Island of Jersey, with the former lead investigator into abuse allegations at the home telling the Guardian newspaper that he now had “no reason to doubt” allegations of sexual assault made against the presenter by former residents.

In a statement last week Jersey Police said that during its investigation into the care home, a verbal allegation of indecent assault said to have occurred during the 1970s in relation to Savile was reported but there was insufficient evidence to proceed. A spokeswoman said that since the documentary aired, the police had had contact with three other parties in relation to allegations involving Jimmy Savile.

Meanwhile the BBC finds itself accused of complicity in a sprawling child abuse scandal because some of the alleged incidents in the 1960s and 1970s are said to have happened on its premises. It’s also facing claims that it allowed a wider culture of routine sexual harassment to thrive within its corridors in past decades.

Describing the atmosphere at the BBC’s Radio 1 pop music station in the 1980s, veteran DJ Liz Kershaw said Savile’s taste for young girls had been an “open secret” and described how she had been “routinely groped” live on air by a fellow presenter

“When I complained to somebody they were incredulous and said ‘Don’t you like it? Are you a lesbian?”’ Kershaw told BBC Radio.

In a statement, the BBC said “We have been disturbed to hear these allegations. All staff past and present who have any information relating to allegations of this kind should raise them with the BBC’s internal investigations unit or with the police directly.”

Peter Garsden, a leading child abuse lawyer, told CNN: “It is typical of the history of cover-ups we have heard about over the years that this secret has remained unpublished for so many years. We have seen it in the Catholic Church, and now at the BBC.” Garsden says his law firm has been contacted by at least one alleged victim.

He said the Savile case bore distinct parallels with instances of child abuse by priests, and said he believes the BBC could face possible charges of negligence over its alleged failure to protect victims on its premises.

“The BBC knew or should have known what was going on and appears to have ignored complaints in the same way as the Catholic Church did,” Garsden added.

“As a celebrity, Jimmy Savile was almost a worshipped individual. He enveloped himself in a cult of hero worship that made him untouchable, just as a priest might use his status to secure silence and stop these rumors going anywhere.”

George Entwistle, director general of the BBC, told a press conference Friday that “next week I will have news about how we will deal with allegations of sexual harassment…I remain confident our existing policies are working effectively to deal with any such problems today.”

He says the network will hold two independent reviews as a result of the allegations surrounding Savile and the network.

The first inquiry will proceed, he said, once the police have finished their inquiries. It will look into the culture and practices of the BBC during the years that Savile worked there, as well as afterwards.

The second will look at the decision in by current affairs program “Newsnight” to drop an investigation into abuse allegations – just days before the screening of a Christmas 2011 tribute to Savile.

Enwistle said: “Despite our efforts to make clear our belief that the decision to drop the Newsnight investigation was taken properly for sound editorial reasons, people have continued to speculate. This is damaging to the BBC and is a cloud of suspicion which cannot be allowed to continue.”

He also repeated the “profound and heartfelt apology on behalf of the BBC” that he gave earlier in the week to the alleged victims of Savile. “It is the victims, these women who were subject to criminal actions who must be central in our thoughts.” he said.

“Jimmy Savile’s victims have faced years of pain. We owe it to them - and to our audiences - to understand how this could have happened - and to make sure that we do everything so that nothing like this could ever happen again.”

Earlier in the week Chris Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust – which oversees the state-funded broadcaster – acknowledged the “cesspit” of allegations about Savile. “I think that it’s clear that not only should the BBC have done more but everyone should have done more.” He added that while the allegations went as far back as the 1960s, this did not lessen the level of responsibility.

Dominic Sandbrook, author of a series of histories of modern Britain, says it is hard to exaggerate the popular appeal of Savile in his heyday. A pioneering club and radio DJ, Savile made his name as a regular presenter of the BBC’s “Top of the Pops” music show from 1964 onwards, serving up the sounds of the 60s to a mass audience.

“Youth culture in the sixties was initially seen as quite dangerous and subversive, but then the BBC tamed it and presented a sanitized version to tens of millions of viewers and Savile was very much the ringmaster,” Sandbrook told CNN.

“Because he was associated with the BBC, people trusted him and thought of him as a family-friendly face. He was a massive presence in the living rooms of millions of British families.”

When Savile died last October, he was buried with the sort of ceremonial trimmings more befitting of a head of state. Thousands lined the streets of his native Scarborough, a seaside resort in the north of England, to see his gold-colored coffin before it was entombed under concrete at an angle of 45 degrees in accordance with his wishes, so its occupant could look out to sea.

Last week, a $6,400 granite headstone, reading “It was good while it lasted” and installed just weeks earlier, was removed from the site overnight and demolished on instructions from Savile’s own family “out of respect for public opinion.” By then a commemorative plaque outside his former home had already been defaced with the words “pedophile” and “rapist.”

CNN was unable to reach any of Savile’s family for a comment but Savile’s nephew Adrian Marsden, 56, told The Sun newspaper the family was now appalled by their deceased relative.

“The family have made the right decision taking the headstone down and smashing it. It leaves a bad taste seeing things that celebrate his life when he has done what he has done.

“There’s no way it’s not true. This has brought real shame on the family.

“I used to beam with pride telling people Jimmy was my uncle. People ask me now, ‘Is it true about your Uncle Jimmy?’ I don’t know where to put my face. It makes me feel sick.”

Max Clifford, a publicist since the 1960s renowned for a string of exposés in tabloid newspapers, told CNN that allegations of abuse had long swirled around Savile. But he said even if victims were willing to go to the police or talked to the media, they would have been hard pressed to have had their stories taken seriously against the word of a man whose charity work and connections to the great and good were almost legendary.

“If it’s one to one, if it’s your word against his, then who is going to believe some young 14 or 15 year old?” said Clifford. “And obviously Savile was someone who was important, someone who could make things happen for them. So there was a certain attitude that, well, that’s expected.

“There are a lot of people who were aware of what was going on, but in the 60s and the 70s it was almost the norm. No one had heard of pedophiles, they were just young girls whether they were 17, 18, 16, 15 or 14.

“And there were people like Jimmy Savile who saw an opportunity and knew how to take advantage.”

Savile cannot defend himself now, but in 2007, when confronted about sexual abuse allegations in a radio interview, he brushed it off with a laugh and said, “What’s the point of responding to something that’s not true.”

While Savile did not live to see his reputation shredded, Clifford said there were others who exploited the permissive attitudes of the era who could yet be held to account – and who would now be very worried.

“I know there are a lot of people out there who are worried there will be a call from the police, because in the 60s and 70s it was life,” Clifford said. “Various people have come to me over the years with accusations not just about Savile … which I eventually managed to bring out, but the one common thing is that nobody is going to believe us or we can’t do it because we’ve moved on because I’m married with children and they don’t know and I’m sorry but I can’t do it…”

Clifford said he had six calls to his office, not just about Jimmy Saville, the day we talked to him, adding “in the last week there must have been 20-30 of them. Some of them were under age, some of them were 16, 17 or 18 at the time, but they were all being used in not dissimilar ways by a variety of people to the way Savile used these young girls. And we said to all of them you’ve got to go to the police. You’ve got to tell them.”

The opinions in this piece are solely those of Simon Hooper.