Awed by authority

Prospect Magazine

Awed by authority


No wonder Jimmy Savile got away with it

During the 1980s, the BBC investigated the politics of its employees, but chose to ignore other behaviour (photo: Photoedit/Alamy)

How did “Jim’ll fix it” get away with it for so long? That’s what everyone wants to know. There are 400 “lines of enquiry,” as the police describe potential victims in their bloodless prose, spanning 40 years. Isn’t it amazing that no one reported him?

Actually, I don’t find it surprising. I am a child of the 1970s and I grew up watching Jim’ll Fix It. I also grew up with dirty old men. Lechers, as they were known, were an occupational hazard for an 11-year-old boy in 1972. There were the “dirty old men” that hung around the public toilet in my local town. There were the flashers. There was “Butch” Armstrong, the history master at my public school. It wasn’t as if we didn’t know about dirty old men; my parents would occasionally warn me to stay away from them, and guessing who was a dirty old man and who wasn’t was a rich source of speculation among my friends and I.

What was odd, looking back, is that no one did anything about them. They were treated like natural obstacles, which you needed to navigate around as a pre-pubescent boy like driving a car around road works. We complained about them, but they were seen as an irritating fact of life.

Remember, the adults of the 1970s were the children of the 1960s. They were still coming to terms with straightforward sex between consenting adults in all its forms; when it came to deviant sexual behaviour, they were completely at sea. They didn’t understand the pathology of sexual deviancy and didn’t even condemn it as criminal. They handled it crudely, excuse the pun, by giving people caricature titles like “dirty old men,” and telling us children to just “stay away.” They had no guidelines for what was appropriate or inappropriate. The police wanted nothing to do with it, only intervening if it was causing a public disturbance, such as the time a flasher tried to assault girls coming out of our public library. If you were someone like Jimmy Savile, fondling underage girls in the privacy of your own caravan, then the law wasn’t interested.

The second reason for such a moral failure was that in the 70s and 80s, Britain was still in awe of members of the Establishment. For all the talk of social unrest, with the miners rioting in the streets, if you were part of the Establishment you were cloaked in a sanctifying omertà. It was very difficult to get the courts and the police to investigate a “figure of authority,” and Jimmy Savile was a figure of authority, his eccentric tracksuits and white Rolls-Royces notwithstanding. After all, he was friends with the royal family and the prime minister; you can’t get more Establishment than that. Once you got inside the high security fence of the Establishment, you could do what you liked.

As a young journalist, I was sent to report on the Jeffrey Archer trial of 1987, when he sued the Daily Star for claiming he had paid off a prostitute, Monica Coghlan. The Archers owned the house of the first world war poet Rupert Brooke and when I arrived to try to get an interview, instead of having to yell my questions through a locked gate as I was expecting, I was confronted by the bizarre sight of Mary Archer serving champagne from a silver tray to journalists standing awkwardly on their lawn. No one had any tough questions for the “fragrant” Mary after that.

And who can forget the judge’s injunction to the jury about Jeffrey: “Is he in need of cold, unloving, rubber-insulated sex in a seedy hotel round about quarter to one on a Tuesday morning after an evening at the Caprice?”, as if any member of the Establishment could stoop so low. Archer won the case and was awarded £500,000 damages. It took 14 years for the truth to come out that he had lied to judge and jury. It seems that the tabloids had heard the rumours about Savile for years; he allegedly blackmailed them by saying that if they wrote about the rumours, it would destroy his charity, and did they want to be responsible for closing Stoke Mandeville hospital? But a big part of why they didn’t report on him was that he was a member of the Establishment and untouchable.

Having spent 20 years at the BBC, I can see how the organisation never investigated Savile. I’m sure that whenever rumours about Savile’s activities reached the ears of the bosses, they dismissed them as vicious innuendo. The BBC of the 80s was a highly hierarchical, deferential organisation run by upper middle-class, middle-aged men who weren’t about to launch an investigation into the sex life of their biggest children’s television star. They were much more concerned about weeding out the politically “unreliable.” After all, when I first joined the BBC in 1986, a “security liaison officer” in Broadcasting House was still “vetting” the background of every new trainee. The officer would stamp the image of a Christmas tree on the file of any employee who was suspected of “subversive” behaviour and passed it along to the authorities. What a tragedy that the officer didn’t do the same for the files of sexual deviants like Savile who did much more damage to the lives of others than the occasional reader of the Daily Worker.

  1. November 17, 2012


    I’ve got to say this article has the same problem the BBC has it’s and makes generalized comments which are stupid, I do not remember men hanging around by me or much else I had a very good youth and a very good child hood except for being caned very often in school, before it was banned.

    I do remember Tony Blair and his green papers on welfare reforms, and I remember the BBC following Blair with programs about scroungers and work shy types, in fact the BBC asked me to go on three of them, but told me I was not really a scrounger and did I know anyone they could use.

    The BBC has always worked for whom ever is/was in power and it’s been a long standing principle if the miners were on strike the strikers were made to look like the baddies while the poor old police, same at Hillsborough.

    So do not give me any crap about the poor old BBC the whole lot needs putting on sky so we can choose whether to pay or not.

  2. November 18, 2012


    Well, Robert, I hope the BBC weathers this okay, and keeps its freedom to question assumptions. I wouldn’t trust Rupert Murdoch to make a better investigative journalist. This may have been thin ice, for Newsnight, for insufficient evidence may have been the problem then, and may still be now. Cameron made a fair point when confronted with the list of names, when he said there was a risk of a witch-hunt against homosexuals.

    Perhaps we need to realise that there wasn’t a robust enough legal framework to prosecute child abuse until 1990 brought in the Children Act, which made it compulsory for police and social workers to work together to gather evidence and prosecute effectively.

    Children were failed though, mainly because those in charge of them did not think such things went on, and abusers looked like normal, respectable people, so children were not believed. It was not just respect for authority that protected men who should have known better, it was also about not wanting to bring disrepute out into the open because of the wider effect it would have.

    Sadly some young people were seen as fair game for abuse. It has taken the Rochdale Inquiry to show up the limitations of statutory guidelines, which still didn’t have clear definitions for how to deal with abuse or sexual exploitation of children by adults outside the family. This call now for children to be protected more fully against more clearly defined risks of harm, provides the first opportunity for previously exploited children to speak out and be heard, and respected at last.

    As for Jimmy Savile and the sexually predatory nature of much DJ behaviour back then, Janet Street Porter made it very clear in the Daily Mail, the kind of constant sexual harassment and assaults that females had to put up with then if they wanted to work in the BBC. Change has been slow but the disrespectful terminology used then would not be used today.

    When it all comes out it may still be difficult to get a successful prosecution due to lack of evidence. Compensation on the other hand should at least recognise the harm that was done to children, who should have been safe in the company of highly respected, high status individuals.

  3. November 21, 2012

    Chris Creegan

    Good piece Tom. I’m struck by the phrase ‘The BBC of the 80s was a highly hierarchical, deferential organisation run by upper middle-class, middle-aged men who weren’t about to launch an investigation into the sex life of their biggest children’s television star.’ I think the importance of gendered power has been sadly missing from this debate. See my blog on the subject

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Tom Carver

Tom Carver
Tom Carver is a former BBC foreign correspondent and the author of a memoir of his father, "Where the Hell Have You Been?" 

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