Janet Smith’s review: corporation probe ‘prejudged’ case and aimed ‘to protect’ BBC
By David Hencke, Alex Varley-Winter and Mark Watts | 20 January 2016
Exaro can reveal that Dame Janet Smith has re-opened the 45-year-old case in her inquiry into the predatory sexual behaviour at the BBC of the late Sir Jimmy Savile, one of its most prominent DJs and presenters.
In a blistering attack on the corporation in the draft of her inquiry report, which has been leaked to Exaro, the retired judge says that the BBC carried out a “wholly inadequate” investigation that “prejudged” the case and lacked “any sense of concern about the safety” of such girls.
Smith says that the corporation’s internal investigation seems to her to have been “designed to protect” the disc-jockey and the BBC, while fobbing off the teenager’s anguished mother.
“It appears that the main concern was to control adverse publicity and to ensure that the BBC’s position was protected,” Smith writes.
Vera McAlpine, the mother of 15-year-old Claire, called the BBC’s duty office on February 26, 1971 to complain that on February 17 a DJ “had invited her daughter back to his flat after Top of the Pops and had seduced her.”
Smith does not name the DJ, who only agreed to speak to her “review” on condition that he was given anonymity. She refers to him as the anonymous witness, “A7”.
The mother has since died. Her complaint, says Smith, “is not available”, but it was passed to Tony Preston, assistant head of ‘variety’, in the light entertainment department. He wrote a memo to the legal department, addressed to “the Solicitor” and copied to Bill Cotton, head of light entertainment. Smith quotes from his memo:
May I confirm that Duty Office received a telephone call from a Mrs McAlpine who sought leave to speak with the Chairman. After being given the usual assurances, she stated that the purport of her complaint was that on the 17th February, her 15-year-old daughter attended a recording of Top of the Pops at the Television Centre and that following the recording, she was invited by [A7] back to his flat where, it is claimed, she was seduced by [A7].
As I explained, I have given the basic details of the complaint by telephone to [A7’s] agent. It is worth recording that, from our knowledge of [A7], the alleged behaviour would appear to be completely out of character. Furthermore, his agent, speaking from memory, recalls that [A7] went out to dinner immediately after the show with a representative of a record company, and then returned home in time to watch “Elizabeth R” on BBC2.
I do not propose to take any further action, pending any direction you may wish to make.
Smith gives the response from George Derrick, assistant solicitor, copied to Cotton, in full:
I have been asked to deal with your memo of 26th February addressed to The Solicitor. Although there is probably no substance to the complaint, nevertheless, as it has been lodged by a member of the public, I think that the Corporation is ‘duty bound’ to investigate the matter. I therefore suggest that you see [A7] and ask him for his comments on Mrs McAlpine’s allegation. Assuming that the comments comprise a flat denial, Mrs McAlpine could be so told by the Duty Officer and also that the Corporation did not propose to take any further action on the complaint. It would follow that if Mrs McAlpine still wanted to pursue the matter she could be told to do this with either Mr [A7] or his Agent.
On 8 March 1971, Mr Preston confirmed to Mr Derrick that, on 3 March 1971, A7 had been interviewed by the Head of Light Entertainment Television (Mr Cotton) and had flatly denied the alleged seduction. Mr Preston, however, recorded a note of concern, “For my part, I must accept the situation, although I would be less than fair if I were not to record that his [A7’s] recollection of 17 February does not agree with the first thoughts of his agent.”
The Review interviewed A7 in 2013. He adamantly denied that he was ever made aware that a complaint had been made against him and also denied that he was ever interviewed by Mr Cotton and/or Mr Preston. He asserted that this was not a lapse of memory on his part; the interview had not taken place. It was pointed out to him that, if indeed there had been no interview, it was strange that Mr Preston should have written this memorandum and should have recorded his concern about the disparity between the account given by A7 at the interview and that given earlier by the agent. A7 could offer no explanation for this and declared himself to be “mystified”. For my part, I am satisfied that an investigation did take place, which comprised an interview with A7 at which he denied the allegation.
For the sake of completeness, I should make it clear at this stage that I have not attempted to make any judgement about whether A7 did seduce Claire McAlpine. The question does not fall within my Terms of Reference. My legitimate interest in this matter relates only to what can be inferred about the BBC’s culture and practices from the way in which the matter was investigated.
I return to 1971. Mr Rex Moorfoot, the Head of Presentation for Television (and, as such, in charge of the day-to-day operation of the Duty Office) became involved and he telephoned Mrs McAlpine on 10 March 1971. His note of the conversation records that Mrs McAlpine confirmed that she had made the complaint about her daughter. I infer that Mr Moorfoot told her that A7 had denied the allegation and that, if she wished to take the matter further she must do so directly with A7 or his agent. I infer that it is what Mr Derrick had suggested should be said. She is noted to have said, however, that she did not wish to take the matter further. Apparently, Mrs McAlpine had said that she was pleased that A7 had been given “some kind of warning” and that her daughter “after making the allegation withdrew it,” and that she thought it was “six of one, half a dozen of the other”. Apparently, Mr Moorfoot ensured that his secretary listened in to the conversation for verification purposes.
On March 30, 1971, Claire committed suicide.
The News of the World ran a front-page story the following Sunday, notes Smith, “suggesting, in effect, that her death was directly connected with her association with Top of the Pops.”
Her mother told the newspaper that she had found her daughter’s diary, in which Claire had written about her encounters with “A7” and another DJ.
Smith is damning of the way in which the BBC investigated the mother’s complaint:
I have accepted that there was some investigation of Mrs McAlpine’s complaint. However, in my view, this investigation was not satisfactory. Mr Preston appears to have prejudged the issue, believing that the alleged conduct would be “out of character” for A7. His first reaction was to take no further action despite the fact that the allegation was serious and entailed an allegation of criminal conduct. Light Entertainment interviewed A7 only because they were advised by the Legal Department that they were “duty bound” to do so. Even the Legal Department envisaged that A7’s response would be a flat denial and that it would not then be necessary to do anything further. Neither the Legal Department nor Light Entertainment attempted to interview Mrs McAlpine or Claire, although, in fairness to the BBC, it seems to me unlikely that Claire would have agreed to be interviewed. I think it likely that Mrs McAlpine would have been prepared to be interviewed and would have provided additional relevant information. They did not ask to see the diary although, again, to be fair to the BBC, Claire might well have refused to let them see it. They did not attempt to find out whether and when Claire had attended Top of the Pops although this information could have been discovered and indeed was discovered soon after her death.
A handwritten note (unsigned and undated but apparently written within a week after her death as part of an official investigation) suggests that Claire had attended the show on four occasions and that, on the fourth occasion, she had been given a ticket by A7 – surely an important piece of information that should have been put to him in interview. The investigation preceding Claire’s death did not include any interviews with Top of the Pops staff or any other members of the audience, although internal documents coming into existence after Claire’s death suggest that some members of staff would have remembered her. Instead, the BBC accepted A7’s denial, even though his agent had given a different account of his movements on the night in question. Finally, although Mr Moorfoot assured that a second person listened in to his conversation with Mrs McAlpine, it does not appear that any record of the interview with A7 was made. In short, the investigation into Mrs McAlpine’s complaint does not appear to me to evince any sense of concern about the safety and welfare of Claire or of girls like her. Rather it appears to me to have been designed to protect and exonerate A7 and the BBC and to fob Mrs McAlpine off.
The BBC later instructed an independent barrister, Sir Brian Neill, who later became a Court of Appeal judge, to investigate wide-ranging allegations in the News of the World against Top of the Pops, including the McAlpine claims.
Smith continues her account of the aftermath of the death of 15-year-old Claire, turning next to a letter from the the late Sir Ian Trethowan, then managing director of BBC Radio, later the corporation’s director-general:
Some insight into the BBC’s attitude towards the death of Claire McAlpine is found in Mr Trethowan’s reply to [a] letter he had received from Douglas Muggeridge [then controller of BBC Radio 1 and 2]… On 13 April 1971, Mr Trethowan wrote to say that the Director-General [Sir Charles Curran] had accepted Mr Muggeridge’s argument that it would not be practicable to raise the age limit for BBC Radio 1 Club to 16. He said that the Director-General had stressed the concern that the BBC “does not put itself in the position of appearing to condone permissiveness.” The letter continued:
“While it is now clear the allegations about ‘Top of the Pops’ rest on a child’s fantasy rather than a fact, you are clearly right in what you said to me last week about the narrow path we tread in the whole pop area, and in these programmes in particular. The producers concerned should make sure that they put everyone involved in any Radio 1 programme on his guard, both while the programme is on air and during the time before and after the programme when the audience is milling around the disc-jockeys. Of course, it is perfectly harmless for disc-jockeys to sign autographs, but the sad case of the fifteen-year-old girl is a reminder of the dangers of the fantasy world these children can create for themselves.”
So far as I have been able to discover, no such instruction was given to producers of Top of the Pops.
For the sake of completeness, I must mention that, on 26 April 1971, while recording the details of a visit by police officers to the Television Centre on 21 April 1971, to observe the recording of Top of the Pops, Mr Preston (Assistant Head of Variety, Light Entertainment) wrote:
“There was no doubt that the Coroner was ‘advised’ to take the line he did within the limits of both the law and his conscience.”
I cannot avoid the conclusion that this last was a reference to the Coroner’s decision not to investigate the connection between Claire McAlpine and Top of the Pops. I have not been able to discover who Mr Preston understood had so ‘advised’ the Coroner but it appears from his memorandum that this was information he had been given by one of the police officers who visited the BBC on 21 April 1971.
More press coverage and more BBC reaction
The Metropolitan Police’s interest in Claire’s death seemed to continue for a while in that, on 11 April 1971, Detective Chief Superintendent Booker was reported in the News of the World to have indicated that there was to be questioning of “the dolly dancers about their friends in the television world”. However, on the same day, 11 April 1971, the Sunday Mirror reported that Claire’s diary had proved “quite worthless” in police enquiries. She (Claire) was considered a fantasist and the police had gone on to say that, “to suggest that she died because of her involvement with any person mentioned in the diary or was a victim in any way is ludicrous and irresponsible. She killed herself after rows at home.”
In the same Sunday Mirror article, it was said that Claire had been found by the pathologist to have been a virgin, thereby implicitly proving that the claims in her diary that she had been seduced were untrue. However, there is no reference to any such finding in either the post mortem report or in the coroner’s papers.
It is not clear from the Sunday Mirror article who is said to have been the source of the information about the worthlessness of the diary or about Claire’s virginity. One would have expected the source to have been the man in charge of the investigation, Detective Chief Superintendent Booker or someone close to him. However, I have not been able to interview him as he died some time ago. Whoever the source was, it appears to have become generally accepted from that time on that Claire’s diary was a work of fiction.
The BBC’s Board of Management Minutes for 19 April 1971 encapsulates another aspect of the BBC’s reaction to the news of the inquest. The minutes refer to the same Sunday Mirror article. Under the heading “Payola and other allegations by News of the World” it was reported:
“HP [Head of Publicity] said that the News of the World had carried a brief report of the inquest of the girl referred to in Minute 139(b). The verdict had been that she had taken her life while the balance of her mind was disturbed. A comment by a senior police officer, reported in the Sunday Mirror, had established that the police were satisfied that the allegations in the girl’s diary were fantasies.”
In a concluding section on the episode, Smith writes:
I have already said that I regard the BBC’s reaction to Mrs McAlpine’s complaint in February 1971 as wholly inadequate. The matter was handled within the Light Entertainment Department and did not apparently go any higher, despite the fact that Mrs McAlpine had asked to speak to the ‘Chairman’. I note, however, that the Solicitor’s department was involved. The attitude of those involved was evident from the outset. The matter was pre-judged: Mr Preston considered that the allegation against A7 was “completely out of character” and Mr Derrick’s view was that there was “probably no substance to the complaint” but that, because it was lodged by a member of the public, the Corporation was “duty bound to investigate it”. No real investigation took place. Mrs McAlpine was not invited to speak face-to-face with the BBC. The only step that was taken was to confront A7 (in an unrecorded conversation) and when a flat denial had been issued, to accept that denial without demur. It seems to me that Mrs McAlpine was justified when she said that she had been “shrugged off”.
I am not alone in viewing the response by the BBC to Mrs McAlpine’s complaint critically. Although all of those directly involved in the process are now long since dead (Messrs Preston, Cotton, Marshall, Derrick, Moorfoot), I have spoken with a number of witnesses about the events and tested my reaction by inviting their comments. No one to whom I spoke was able to endorse the approach taken by the BBC. Mr Moir’s view was particularly relevant [Moir was head of ‘variety’ and the executive responsible for Jim’ll Fix It]. He was shown the sequence of internal BBC memoranda concerning the complaint and, whilst emphasising his impression that Mr Preston, Mr Cotton and Mr Moorfoot were all decent and honourable men, he acknowledged that the way in which the complaint was prejudged was shocking. Viewed overall, he concluded that the impression given by the memoranda was that those involved wished to close the matter down as quickly as possible “to get this done with, buttoned up, mother talked to and the matter closed down.” This view was shared by Brian Clifford, who worked in publicity and then became deputy head of the Information Division and eventually head of Corporate Promotion. Having seen the internal documents, he said that it appeared that the BBC did not wish to engage with Mrs McAlpine. It would have done the minimum to make the fuss go away.
In my view, the BBC’s reaction to Claire’s death was also inappropriate. From the Board of Management Minutes, it appears that the main concern was to control adverse publicity and to ensure that the BBC’s position was protected at the inquest. When the inquest passed off without reference to the BBC, it appears that the BBC seized with relief on the police statement that Claire was a fantasist… In my view, when these allegations were raised by the News of the World and when they knew of Claire McAlpine’s death, the BBC should have undertaken a thorough investigation of what went on during and after Top of the Pops. The focus of this should have been to establish what ought to be done to protect the young people who attended the show. This was not the responsibility of the police; they are there to investigate possibly criminal behaviour. The BBC’s responsibility was much wider than that. But the BBC’s reaction was limited in effect to problems of ticketing, admission and policing the age limit.
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