Listening to the women who alleged abuse, and fighting to get their stories heard, helped change the treatment of victims by the media and the justice system
Tue 2 Nov 2021 06.00 GMT
On Saturday 29 October 2011, the day the entertainer Jimmy Savile died aged 84, a couple of comments were posted on the Duncroft School page of the networking site Friends Reunited. Duncroft was designated as an “approved school” by the Home Office, and offered residential care for “intelligent but emotionally disturbed girls”. “He died today, RIP no RIH yes rot in hell,” read one message. “Perhaps some closure for the childhoods that were ruined by this animal.” Over the next few days a handful more messages appeared: “You child molester – you were no better than all the other pervs who have been banged up … only your celebrity status saved you.” Someone else wrote how she would never recover from what “JS” did to her.
Across the news bulletins and weekend front pages, Savile was being given a sendoff fitting for someone who had achieved national treasure status. As BBC Radio 1 DJ, and co-presenter of the BBC’s flagship music programme Top of the Pops, Savile became a personality in the pop music scene in the 60s and 70s; his oddness and mannerisms enhanced his celebrity. As the host of the long-running Saturday evening TV show Jim’ll Fix It, he played godfather, granting the wishes to children who wrote in. On the Monday after his death, during the news editors’ 9.15 morning meeting at BBC headquarters in west London, those present were asked to take coverage of Savile’s funeral seriously. The concern was that the news editors might sneer at Savile; they were reminded that, to much of the audience, Savile was a northern hero. He had started out working in the mines, going on to earn a knighthood and befriend royalty through his television shows and charity work. Get the Guardian’s award-winning long reads sent direct to you every Saturday morning
Meanwhile, George Entwistle, the BBC’s head of television, was trying to work out how BBC light entertainment would mark the death of one of its biggest stars. Entwistle was informed that there was no obituary ready to run on Savile – unusual for someone who had made such a contribution to British public life. The decision had been made by successive controllers, a colleague told him by email. Savile had a “dark side”, which meant it was “impossible to make an honest film to be shown so close to death”, his colleague said. Advertisement
Entwistle emailed his team: the best way forward was to avoid making anything new about Savile. Someone suggested making a Fix It Christmas special hosted by a new BBC star. All agreed. Problem solved. It’d be “a real Christmas treat”, said the BBC1 controller in an email.
Rumours about Savile being a sexual predator and a paedophile had persisted for decades. In his trademark brightly coloured shell suits, scant shorts and string vests, Savile had performed his perversions almost as much as he’d hidden them. His manner almost dared people to challenge him. Because of the UK’s punitive libel laws, no one ever had. On the Monday morning after Savile’s death, in the Newsnight office at BBC Television Centre, social affairs correspondent Liz MacKean and producer Meirion Jones began to investigate Savile’s history.
Jones had a personal connection to the story: his aunt ran the Duncroft School. Over three years in the early 1970s, when he was in his mid-teens, Jones visited Duncroft on weekends with his parents and his sister. They would often see Savile’s white Rolls-Royce parked outside. His parents were concerned about Savile taking the girls off site. Jones met Savile there a few times, always finding it curious how he seemed to speak in catchphrases that created what Jones described as “a screen between him and people around him”.
In 1988, Jones became a journalist at the BBC. It soon became one of the stories he wanted to get a purchase on. Once social media arrived, he would search sites for references to Savile and Duncroft. In 2010, he found a memoir published online by a former Duncroft pupil, detailing abuse by a celebrity “JS”. Jones had spoken to MacKean at different times about pursuing the story, but they were at a disadvantage legally. Savile was part of the establishment, a leading charity fundraiser, and some of the Duncroft girls were offenders. Some had been abused from a young age, and had run away from care homes. No one would believe them against him. “Any witness would be destroyed in court so we’d never get it past the lawyers,” Jones told me. “It’s exactly why he targeted places like that.” Advertisement
MacKean, then 46, from Hampshire, had two children and worked at Newsnight part-time. As a journalist she was drawn to people on the margins – people who’d been wronged and couldn’t get justice. “She was a lucky person, highly attuned to the unlucky and the unfair,” MacKean’s friend Amelia Bullmore wrote to me.
Within a few weeks of Savile’s death, MacKean had collected on-the-record testimony from 10 women who had been at Duncroft. Seven had been abused and three had witnessed abuse by Savile. It had been difficult to convince them to go public. Some told her they worried they would be seen as complicit; they were sure they wouldn’t be believed. Some feared a backlash, that people would claim they were out for something: compensation, notoriety. MacKean, a BBC journalist of 20 years’ standing, assured the women that they’d have the weight of Newsnight behind them, and the support of the BBC. But a few days before the transmission date, the Newsnight editor, Peter Rippon, told MacKean and Jones that the piece couldn’t be broadcast.
He said they needed to focus on some kind of institutional failure. What about the police investigation that had been halted? MacKean told Rippon that the women’s stories corroborated one another – they didn’t need any other elements. It all stacked up. And on top of this, they hadfound institutional failure by the BBC. Some of the abuse had taken place on BBC premises, in dressing rooms in Television Centre, the very building in which they were standing.
MacKean couldn’t know the extent to which she’d have to take on the BBC in order to make sure that the former Duncroft pupils were taken seriously. Nor could she know that she and Jones would be risking their careers. But in refusing to drop the story, they helped to change the culture about the way past sexual abuse is talked about, and survivors listened to, in the UK.
The BBC is now making a mini-series about Savile. One of the few details it has announced is that Steve Coogan will play Savile. Some viewers are uneasy about the BBC putting Savile back in the limelight, and have expressed concern about how people still living with the impact of his abuse will feel about it. But the BBC feels the time is right for a reckoning, and says the drama “will examine the impact his appalling crimes had on [Savile’s] victims and the powerlessness many felt when they tried to raise the alarm”.