Exaro News Archive

BBC chiefs oblivious to Jimmy Savile’s damning Sun stories

Janet Smith’s review: ex-bosses quizzed over public airing in 1983 of star’s dark side

By David Hencke, Alex Varley-Winter, Mark Watts and Tim Wood | 20 January 2016

BBC chiefs oblivious to Jimmy Savile’s damning Sun storiesBBC executives who oversaw Jim’ll Fix It were oblivious to a series of newspaper articles that raised sharp questions about the suitability of its presenter.

Dame Janet Smith’s inquiry into the predatory sexual activities of the BBC star, Sir Jimmy Savile, challenged five executives over three apparently damning articles, based on an interview with the television and radio presenter, published in 1983 in The Sun.

The retired judge’s inquiry report, which has been leaked to Exaro, makes clear her incredulity that the articles were apparently overlooked at the BBC. She was also distinctly unimpressed by some of the executives’ responses after she made them read the articles for her “review”.

Their ignorance is especially embarrassing because more than 100 BBC employees told Smith that they heard about sexual misconduct by Savile.

The articles published over three days were headlined:

  • My violent world, by Jim the Godfather
  • Girls galore!
  • I told a suicide 29 ways to top himself

Smith writes: “Savile appears to have co-operated in the production of these pieces and did not deny their essential accuracy, when asked about them later. Nor does it appear that he sued for defamation.

“In one of these articles, he boasts about how many girls he has sex with on a casual basis and stresses that the girls have to do all the running; he gives them his telephone number and the rest is up to them. It seems to me that Savile was confident that these articles would not damage his public reputation.”

Smith notes: “The review has examined the minutes of the meetings of the board of governors in the period after publication and there is no reference to it.”

“The material was scarcely noticed by the BBC. The Press log, a daily record of all media items that were of concern to the BBC, does not mention these articles.”

Jim Moir, head of ‘variety’ and the executive responsible for Jim’ll Fix It above its producer, told Smith that he did not recall reading the articles. She writes: “He said that, on reading them recently, he thought that they showed a side of Savile that was deeply unattractive.

“However, his recollection was that, at the time of publication, they did not cause a stir at the BBC.”

“He accepted that the articles would have come to him through the cutting service in the usual way and it was reasonable to assume he had read them at the time. However, he had no recollection of anyone senior contacting him about them.”

She added: “Mr Moir admitted that, at the very least, he should have discussed these articles with [Roger] Ordish [producer of Jim’ll Fix It]. Both men were aware of them and neither thought of speaking to the other about them, although their evidence was that they were close colleagues in regular contact with each other.”

Moir told Exaro: “I cannot comment until after the Smith report is published. I am afraid I am bound by the terms of the Smith report, which is confidentiality until the report is published.”

“The Smith inquiry requires confidentiality for all those who gave evidence, so I am unable to help you.”

Smith also interviewed four former controllers of BBC1 who were in post during Savile’s time on Jim’ll Fix It. None had been aware of the articles in The Sun, she says. But she wanted to know whether they thought that the stories showed Savile to be “not a suitable person to present a family show like Jim’ll Fix It.”

Some of Smith’s comments on the four former controllers’ reactions after being told to read the three articles from The Sun follow:

Alan Hart, controller at the time of publication

He believes that he did not see the articles at the time of publication. Now that he has read them, he thinks that his reaction to them would have been that they were largely exaggeration and bragging. When asked how a person who was proud to boast about this kind of thing fitted with the ethos of the programme such as Jim’ll Fix It, he said it did not “fit very well at all”… He thinks he would probably have spoken to the head of department and told him to tell Savile to stop saying this kind of thing. He did not think that he would have taken Savile off the programme, which would have meant the end of Jim’ll Fix It.”

Lord Grade, controller from 1984 to 1986

He joined the BBC in 1984 so was not even employed within the BBC when The Sun articles were published in April 1983. He was not aware of the articles until they were drawn to his attention by the Review.

Lord Grade told the Review that, when he was at the BBC, newspaper articles that were thought to be potentially problematical were brought to the attention of managers by the press office. When shown The Sun articles, however, he said that he suspected that people reading them at the time would have thought that that was just Savile “sounding off”. People would have thought that it was “his fantasy” and “self-promotion”. I had the impression that Lord Grade did not think that, even if true, this kind of material would have been taken very seriously. He thought that the kind of “groupie culture” where there would be “a string of girls, whatever age” waiting outside a stage door or “going into the dressing rooms and coming out”, was just part of the scene in the 1960s and 1970s. Even in the 1980s, he said, it was very different from today.

He explained that what he called “the default position” was whether or not the published material was going to damage the BBC’s reputation. The BBC would only be concerned if there was going to be a major scandal. Even if people thought that the material was true, the BBC would not take action unless there was a scandal. He agreed that the attitude did not sit well with Reithian values. He did not accept that there was any such thing as BBC values, because, he said, different values pertained in different parts of the BBC…

To sum up, Lord Grade’s view was that, if the press did not make a big fuss about these articles by picking them up and running with them, there would be no pressure on the BBC to stop using Savile. He agreed, however, that the kind of image that the articles projected did not fit well with a programme like Jim’ll Fix It. He thought that, even if the articles were not actually true, it was not acceptable for the BBC to have a person who bragged about that kind of thing fronting a show like Jim’ll Fix It.

Exaro sought comment from Grade. After forwarding our questions to him, his PA told Exaro: “He has said everything he wishes to say to the Smith inquiry. We now have to await the eventual publication.”

Jonathan Powell, controller from 1989 to 1993

Mr Powell said that he thought that the BBC should not interest itself in the private behaviour of a celebrity unless the behaviour was illegal or unless it was inappropriate and became public and might compromise the BBC’s reputation or the programme on which the celebrity worked…

He thought that Savile created himself as a role model by creating the perception that he dedicated a good deal of his life to good works, raised money for charity and was on friendly terms with the great and the good. He thought that these things made him appear to be more friendly, approachable and warm than he naturally was.

When asked what (hypothetically) he would have thought if, as controller of BBC One, he had been made aware of The Sun articles, his first reaction was to say that one should remember that: “The Sun is a sensationalist newspaper which is by and large fiction,” and that its “provenance would have played against taking it hugely seriously.”

… He did not think he would have read the article (“Jim the Godfather”) carefully enough to have been struck by the claim that Savile could arrange for someone to be ‘done over’ in London while he was in Edinburgh so that it was ‘nothing to do with him’. He read it as “part of a slightly shady past, a slightly shady club-ridden show-biz past”, and that Savile’s reputation had changed on account of his charity work so that he would not have thought that this article needed to be looked into. He said, however, that it was odd that Savile would wish to boast about these aspects of his behaviour.

He expressed greater concern about the second article (“How I pick up girls on marathons”), particularly when read in conjunction with some of the passages in ‘As It Happens’ [Savile’s autobiography] to which the Review referred him… When asked whether he would have expected someone in the BBC to bring the second article to his attention, he said that he thought not because the article did not mention the BBC.

Finally, he was asked whether, if someone had suggested to him that in light of these articles Savile ought not to be used on a programme like Jim’ll Fix It, he would have suggested that the BBC should wait to see what the public reaction was. He replied: “I don’t know. I don’t think that I would have read it and jumped to the conclusion that he must be taken off the screen. I hope I would have read it and thought, ‘We need to have a conversation at a high level about what he’s saying.’”

Alan Yentob, controller from 1993, BBC creative director until being forced to resign last month

I am quite satisfied that his decision to axe Jim’ll Fix It in 1994 was taken for artistic or programming reasons and was quite unrelated to any concerns about Savile. Mr Yentob explained, and I accept, that he had no concerns about Savile. He had not heard any rumours about his sexuality; nor was he, at that time, aware of any of the published material to which I have referred… Indeed, that material was completely new to him when shown it by the Review.

… If the view was that this was thought just boasting, he might have advised that Savile should be warned not to talk like that because it might be misunderstood… When asked what he thought about someone who boasted about those kinds of things, he said: “I think a person who boasts like this is pretty foul and unappealing.” When asked whether that person would be a good role model for young people, he said that he doubted that he was but said he did not want to be “judgmental”. He agreed without hesitation that he BBC does have a responsibility as to the role models that it puts out. He added that he did not like what he had just been shown.

When asked whether he thought that members of the talent should be given a degree of leeway in respect of their conduct, he expanded on what he had meant about being judgmental. The passage is important and I quote it in full. He said:

“For the BBC to be morally judgmental and to expect everyone to hold the same views as the person making the decision is a tall order and not necessarily appropriate. We… need to be a broad church of the people who appear on television. You don’t necessarily know everything about them, nor do you have the right to know everything about them. But if you find out things about them which are wrong, you have to point it out, you have to take some kind of action, obviously, and I don’t believe that talent has an excuse to behave badly, no. The question is, do you tell them, do you warn them, where do you draw the line? So I think that it is important and it doesn’t go away. It’s increasingly… the case… that in this world now, where everything is in the public domain… you are more and more alert and aware of these things and the judgments are tough.”

Mr Yentob also said that The Sun articles showed a potential for reputational damage to the BBC and expressed the view that perhaps the top end of the BBC had not paid sufficient attention to what was going on in the entertainment world… Today, “a mis-spoken word or a sentence can get you into serious trouble.” However, he thought the position might have been different at the time of these articles because:

“Some of the public probably would be forgiving about this at the time for some reason, because his reputation – because he was so loved and liked. I’d like to know how many letters were written to The Sun complaining about what he was talking about, how many people believed it, thought it was boasting. This is not to excuse the BBC but there is something about… those times and that era where somehow he seemed immune.”

Asked whether that meant that it was all right for the BBC to react to public opinion rather than forming its own view, he said that the BBC did have to make its own judgments but he thought that public opinion was plainly relevant to them. He speculated that if there had been more of a public reaction to The Sun articles, maybe people like him in the BBC would have been more aware of the problem than they were.

Mr Yentob then looked at other public domain material… and reacted by saying: “How did he get away with all this you ask yourself?” He then volunteered that, if I were going to say that there was a responsibility on the BBC not to have missed this material, that would be a fair point for me to make.

Smith ends the passage on the executives’ reactions by saying:

Why did Mr Moir and Mr Ordish not see the problems revealed by the material and speak to each other about it? First, it seems clear that the priority of managers in the Light Entertainment Department at that time was to keep a successful programme running and not to think about other issues unless a problem presented itself in an obvious form. Second, I have the clear impression from Lord Grade and Mr Moir that only if there had been a press or public outcry arising from the 1983 material, on such a scale as to affect the BBC’s reputation, would any thought have been given to Savile’s suitability to front Jim’ll Fix It. There was no such public outcry. From that one might infer that, at that time, people did not think that kind of behaviour described in those articles was seriously reprehensible.

One of the factors that troubles me is that, without a public outcry, BBC management would not have thought of initiating any discussion about Savile’s suitability. Two points must be made. First, if the BBC is anxious to maintain a good reputation (as it very properly was and is) the right way to safeguard a good reputation is to ensure that the BBC acts properly, proactively and of its own volition, rather than waiting for and reacting to a scandal and public outcry. Second, it does not seem to me that the public-interest values, which the BBC claims to hold dear, had a very high priority when it came to the possible interference with a popular and successful programme.”

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By Exaro News

Exaro News investigates matters of public interest and seeks to uncover the truth.