'Serious Failings' at BBC Allowed Decades of 'Monstrous' Abuse by Broadcaster Jimmy Savile

A long-awaited report into the BBC found that macho culture, deference to celebrity, and hierarchy were to blame for the failure to report decades of child abuse.
February 25, 2016, 6:40pm
Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News

At least 117 employees at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) had some knowledge of television presenter and serial child abuser Jimmy Savile's "monstrous" assaults, but there is no evidence that senior management knew due to the organization's "serious failings," the long-anticipated report into the decades of abuse has found.

The report — which has been dismissed as an "expensive whitewash" by victims — said the BBC's hierarchical structure, lack of cohesion, macho culture, climate of not complaining, and deference towards celebrity allowed Savile to repeatedly get away with what he had done.

The inquiry found Savile assaulted at least 72 victims, 34 of whom were under the age of 18 — the youngest aged just eight. Eight of these were cases of rape, with the youngest victim of rape 10 years old.

Sexual assaults or rapes took place in virtually every one of the BBC premises where Savile worked. This included where the entertainment show Jim'll Fix It and Clunk Clink public information seatbelt films were filmed in West London, in BBC Television Centre, when it was home of Top of the Pops music chart program, and provincial studios in Leeds, Manchester, and Glasgow.

The abuse occurred in his dressing rooms, bathrooms, make-up rooms, the canteens at BBC Manchester and Television Centre in London, and a local church during the Radio 1 roadshow.

Meanwhile, former British radio and television presenter Stuart Hall was found to have abused 21 victims, eight of whom were under 16, with the youngest aged just 10.

In 2013, Hall was sentenced to a 30-month jail term after pleading guilty. He was later sentenced to a further two and a half years in prison, but was recently released, after serving much less than that.

The five volume report — which runs to 1,200 pages — was written by Dame Janet Smith and published three years after the inquiry was initially launched.

Its publication was delayed almost a year after the London Metropolitan Police said releasing its findings could hamper ongoing investigations into sexual abuse claims.

One of Britain's biggest stars, celebrated for raising around 40 million pounds ($55.7m) for charity, Savile died in 2011 with his reputation apparently untarnished, but reports of abuse began to emerge in the year after his death. The number of alleged incidents grew quickly, with hundreds of people eventually coming forward to declare assaults that occurred during his time at the top of the UK's television world.

Savile worked for the BBC from 1964, presenting Top of the Pops, hosting radio programs, and presenting the long-running Jim'll Fix It, which attracted as many as 16.5 million viewers on a Saturday evening. Obituaries lauded him as the "favorite uncle to the nation's children," with Prince Charles leading tributes after his death.

His obituary in the Guardian noted "many considered that there was something strange about Savile," noting "his enthusiasm for spending quite so much time in the hospital environment" while supposedly doing charity work and "his apparent lack of a sex life."

In February, a separate report found Savile was guilty of abusing at least 63 people connected to Stoke Mandeville Hospital.

"What happened was profoundly wrong, it should never have started, it should certainly have been stopped"— Tony Hall pic.twitter.com/TBl2YK81Zh

— Sally Hayden (@sallyhayd) February 25, 2016

The Smith report noted that Savile was known to be both self-aggrandizing and secretive. It found that Savile committed many acts of "inappropriate sexual conduct in connection with his work for the BBC," abusing girls, boys, and women. These rapes and assaults usually took place in his home or camper van, but he had either met the victims at work or else would groom them by offering them the chance to visit the BBC before taking them elsewhere.

It said that several "wake-up calls" should have alerted BBC management to Savile's inappropriate behavior as early as 1969, but his conduct was not reported or acted on.

Over the decades when the abuse occurred, several people raised concerns but nothing was done. On one occasion Savile stuck his hand up the skirt of a junior employee — her supervisor later told her: "Keep your mouth shut, he is a VIP."

Another woman, who attended a Top of the Pops show, was assaulted by the presenter before being told it was "just Jimmy Savile mucking about." The minimum age of those who attended Top of the Pops was 15 — this was later raised to 16 after concerns about the risks teenage girls might face there, but the Smith report noted this age limit remained difficult to enforce.

The report said that the "culture of the times" both in and out of the BBC means it is unsurprising that complaints of abuse were ignored.

Despite the fact Savile's behavior went on for so long, the report controversially said it had found no evidence to say that the BBC "as a corporate body" was aware of what he was doing — because a large number of people failed to report their suspicions to senior managers.

It determined that no senior member of staff — a level defined by Smith as a head of department — was ever aware of Savile's behavior. It also claimed that senior staff members had less exposure to gossip and rumor than those lower down because of the organization's hierarchical structure.

"The BBC is something of a rumor mill. There are rumors about all sort of people," Smith said later at a press conference, before saying she had to decide where to draw a line.

"The BBC has always been a place of quality and dedication — a place where people were proud and happy to work and were even prepared to accept unpleasantness because it was so important for them to work for one of the world's leading and most respected media organizations," the report reads.

The report also heavily criticized society, both in the past and today, for giving huge status to those who are famous, saying that the "power of celebrity" — the deference and even adulation given to well-known people — "make detection of a celebrity abuser even more difficult."

On top of this, the report lambasted "cultural factors at work within the BBC," saying there was a habit of not complaining which militated against the reporting of sexual assault, particularly where it related to a well-known member of staff. Smith said that the BBC needed to examine its attitudes towards those known as "the Talent" — on screen personalities — who, it said, needed to be made aware that they must adhere to the same standards of behavior as every other employee.

The report also said that the abuse which took place "occurred against a particular social background," and said the "macho culture" at play meant complaints could be overlooked. In 1969, only 1 percent of those in top management grades were women.

A draft of Smith's report was leaked last month, something which Smith condemned, saying the outlet that published it did so without regard for the victims of the abuse.

One of the most controversial parts of the leaked text was amended in the final version that came out on Thursday: originally referring just to the BBC, the final draft of the report said that no organization can now be confident they're not harboring a child abuser.

The final report ran to five volumes and more than 1,200 pages. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Smith — who spoke to more than 380 witnesses about Savile alone — said many BBC staff had requested anonymity before they were willing to say anything negative about the BBC. Some claimed an "atmosphere of fear" still exists at the BBC because many people lack the security of an employment contract, and worry about losing their job or being passed over for promotion.

In a press conference following the publication of the report, Dame Janet Smith told reporters that Savile was an "opportunistic and shameless" danger to young people — both girls and boys.

"Both of these men used their fame and positions as BBC celebrities to abuse the vulnerable," Smith said, remaining "undetected for decades."

Smith denied accusations that the BBC had never sought to influence the review. She said a culture of separation, competition, and even hostility, as well as loyalty to and pride in a television or radio program could hinder the sharing of concerns at the national broadcaster. "There was a reluctance to rock the boat." She also said that this hadn't necessarily been overcome, noting that many witnesses had only spoken critically of the BBC after being assured they could remain anonymous.

Overall, she said: "All the problems of reporting were compounded in relation to the 'talent,'" she said. "Celebrities were treated with kid gloves and were virtually untouchable."

At the same time, child protection very low on the BBC's radar, and sexual harassment was not taken seriously.

Speaking to reporters at the BBC headquarters in London on what he called a "sobering day," Director General Tony Hall began by addressing the victims of abuse.

"To all survivors of Savile and Hall, every one of you, I would like to say this: What happened was profoundly wrong, it should never have started, it should certainly have been stopped," he said. "Sexual abuse is sexual abuse, it can never be excused."

"The BBC failed you when it should have protected you," the director general continued, adding that he admired their courage and was grateful for their honesty. "Your voice has finally been heard but I also recognize it has been heard far far too late… Today we say sorry."

Tony Hall also commented on the criticism of the way the BBC treats its most well-known employees. "What this terrible episode teaches us among other things is that fame is power… and like any other form of power it must be held to account."

Measures currently being taken inside the organization include the launch of a campaign where staff could be made aware of how to report concerns or get help themselves, Tony Hall said, along with increased cooperation with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) aimed at improving the BBC's child protection policies, and the commission of another independent audit which would report in the coming fall.

Meanwhile, this week has also seen a dismissal directly as a result of the inquiry. British DJ Tony Blackburn — who has worked for the BBC for 49 years — said he was fired because his evidence to the inquiry showed that a cover-up had taken place, something he says he had no knowledge of. The incident relates to an allegation by a 15-year-old girl in 1971 who allegedly wrote in her diary that she had been assaulted by a number of celebrities, including Blackburn. The girl killed herself soon afterwards.

Blackburn claimed he is being scapegoated. "The BBC have made clear that they are not terminating my relationship with them because of any misconduct," he said in a statement. "They are destroying my career and reputation because my version of events does not tally with theirs."

The veteran DJ said that he was never interviewed by police about the death, though BBC records seen by Smith appear to show that he was.

Tony Hall confirmed the BBC had "parted company" with Blackburn, saying that he wanted to be "quite clear that I'm making a judgment about how someone has engaged in this seriously important inquiry," and that Blackburn's standard of evidence "fell short."

Also speaking at the press conference in London, BBC Trust chair Rona Fairhead called Smith's report clear and authoritative. "I am confident that from here forward nothing will be the same," she said.

"These events will forever be a source of deep regret and shame. Many people were failed by those that should have protected and supported them."

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd