In 2013 Miles Goslett won the London Press Club Scoop of the Year award for an article in The Oldie exposing the reality behind the axed Newsnight report into Jimmy Savile. In the light of a new book about Savile, Goslett points out that the BBC is still concealing the truth about who knew what and when
Dan Davies’s chilling new book about the life of Jimmy Savile, In Plain Sight (Quercus, £18.99), is not so much a labour of love as a labour of hate – a project which the author felt compelled to tackle in order to get this thorniest of subjects out of his system.
Davies first became aware of Savile in 1980 when, aged nine, he was taken to a recording of Jim’ll Fix It.
He took an instant dislike to the Yorkshireman, forgot about him for several years, but in adolescence re-discovered him and became gripped by the dark side of his character long before anyone else was prepared to admit to having suspicions about him. He compiled a ‘Savile Dossier’ of press cuttings of his ‘increasingly odd pronouncements’, convinced he would one day use it to bring down
the BBC star.
It’s amazing to reflect now that Davies was conscious of Savile’s warped mind only thanks to things Savile himself said publicly and the various books he published in the 1970s and 1980s in which he aired his disturbing opinions on a range of matters, notably sex.
After becoming a journalist in the 1990s, Davies’s semi-obsession prompted him to interview Savile several times over a period of seven years, so he is probably one of the few people who can claim to have known this notoriously tricky man in any depth – in so far as anybody could really know him, of course.
Yet even if he wasn’t able to use the dossier to bring Savile down during his lifetime, he has certainly nailed any lingering doubts about him post-death with this well-crafted, if horrifying, account of how he so casually ruined lives through sexual abuse and duped a nation with his undoubted mental agility. The stories Davies tells of Savile’s foul deeds are so relentless no sane individual would find it easy to get through this book. For those who manage it, though, a fascinating account awaits.
If one is seeking anything positive from the Savile scandal it is that his death was the trigger for other abusers being brought to justice. In recent months Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall and Max Clifford have all been convicted of sexually assaulting young women and girls, their victims emboldened, perhaps, by the media and Crown Prosecution Service’s reactions to the Savile case.
Some people believe that other well-known men are destined for the dock for the same reason. We shall see.
Meanwhile, the Government has felt it necessary to launch a public inquiry into historical child abuse and the latest BBC inquiry on the same subject, chaired by Dame Janet Smith, is scheduled to report this autumn.
This sea change in the public’s attitude is ultimately attributable to one person: Meirion Jones. He is the BBC producer who mounted the six-week Newsnight investigation into Savile which informed the world of who the DJ really was – even though, ironically, Jones’s film was never broadcast.
Jones’s investigation, in which he was brilliantly helped by reporter Liz MacKean and researcher Hannah
Livingston, had been developing since the 1970s and was ready to begin on the day Savile died in October 2011.
Jones’s aunt had been the headmistress at Duncroft School, an all-girls approved school in Surrey. When Jones visited the school as a child four decades ago, he recalled seeing Savile there and was instinctively doubtful of his motives. He tucked the memory away, prepared to react if he ever had reason to do so.
Sure enough, in 2010 he received confirmation from an ex-Duncroft pupil that Savile had abused children.
And so I return to Jones’s abandoned Newsnight investigation. Even though Savile is dead, the BBC continues to be silent about who within its ranks was aware of what it unearthed and what they did about it.
Despite recent promises to restore public trust in the wake of the Savile scandal, and having spent millions of pounds of public money on various inquiries which have so far shone only a dim light on its secretive workings, the BBC has chosen to become enmeshed in a spider’s web of half-truths and non-denial denials best described as a cover-up of a cover-up of a cover-up. If this sounds complicated, it is not.
Back in February 2012 Richard Ingrams published an article in The Oldie written by me describing Newsnight’s investigation of Savile’s unhealthy interest in children. Ingrams was the only editor in the national media who was prepared to run this piece.
Although essentially complete, Newsnight’s film had been axed in what remain mysterious circumstances in December 2011. I was tipped off about its contents. I was also made aware that BBC executives had agreed that, having cancelled the Newsnight project, tribute programmes praising Savile should be shown over the Christmas period. Abandoning Newsnight’s film was cover-up number one.
In the Oldie article – published in the March 2012 issue and still available online – I named the then BBC director-general Mark Thompson as one executive who, I believed, knew all about Newsnight’s investigation.
At the time, I wrote: ‘When asked if BBC director-general Mark Thompson knew of the Newsnight report, the BBC refused to comment. But a source has told me that Thompson was tackled about the axing of the report at a pre-Christmas drinks party, so he cannot claim to be ignorant of it.’
The Daily Telegraph and the political website Guido Fawkes both repeated my assertion within 48 hours. On the day my piece was published, a Telegraph journalist called Tim Walker also emailed Thompson, asking him if the Oldie story was true.
Thompson did not reply. At that time he was busy lining up his present job as chief executive of The New York Times. Even the slightest connection with a paedophile scandal could have scuppered his chances of securing this lucrative American post.
Proving just how different the climate was only two years ago, The Oldie’s story about Savile never caught fire among the mass media at the time of publication. Thompson escaped scrutiny.
Nevertheless, I carried on asking the BBC press office about his knowledge of Newsnight’s investigation right up until September 2012 – the month Thompson left the BBC.
Although I never got an answer, I pursued this line because it struck me that the head of any organisation sets its tone.
If Thompson, as BBC editor-in-chief, didn’t know about Newsnight’s investigation of Savile, I thought he should know; but if he did know about it, and was content to pretend that he did not, his colleagues would probably be happy to follow his lead and also bury the inconvenience of Savile’s alleged abuse. Either way, the licence fee-paying public would be interested.
It is worth repeating that Newsnight had interviewed women who claimed Savile had abused children on BBC premises and heard evidence of which Surrey Police, who had previously investigated Savile, were unaware. By any standards, the BBC surely had a duty to inform the authorities of Newsnight’s findings and Thompson, as the BBC’s most senior employee, should have done this personally.
I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the BBC in April 2012 asking what Thompson knew of Newsnight’s film – the BBC refused to answer. I rang Thompson’s office in May 2012 and told his secretary that I wanted to speak to her boss about Savile’s abuse of children on BBC premises in the 1970s; she said Thompson was away and later claimed to have forgotten to pass on my message to him. And in August 2012, while working on a separate story about Savile’s abuse for The Sunday Times Magazine, I put a series of questions to the BBC asking what Thompson knew of Newsnight’s project. I also asked what Helen Boaden, then head of BBC news, knew of it.
The BBC’s response, on 6th September 2012, was to spend £803 of licence fee money asking the law firm Mills & Reeve to write a letter to The Sunday Times threatening to sue if it
published any story stating that Thompson or Boaden had been involved in suppressing Newsnight’s Savile/sex abuse investigation.
The law firm therefore acknowledged on its clients’ behalf that such an investigation had taken place, but it was careful to keep Thompson’s and Boaden’s fingerprints away from this acknowledgement.
Even though I had never intended to write that Thompson personally had suppressed Newsnight’s investigation, The Sunday Times decided the project was too problematic and my piece was jettisoned.
In the meantime, ITV had been working on its own explosive Savile exposé. When it was broadcast later in September, gaining national attention, the BBC was forced to act.
In particular, questions were asked about why it had axed its Newsnight report nine months previously.
The corporation’s response was to set up the Pollard Review, an independent inquiry chaired by ex-Sky News boss Nick Pollard. This £3 million inquiry was conducted over eight weeks. When published it was presented by Chris Patten, at the time the head of the BBC Trust, as a brilliant example of truth-telling and swamp-draining.
Yet Patten overlooked the fact that Pollard had failed to identify in his report which BBC executive had decided to axe the Newsnight investigation – for no individual was prepared to take responsibility for that.
And, having interviewed Thompson during his inquiry and considered all of the evidence detailed above, including my Oldie article, Pollard used his report to clear Thompson unequivocally of having had any knowledge of any allegation against Savile during the eight years that he ran the BBC.
Pollard’s clearing of Thompson was the second cover-up – something I can state with confidence because of what happened next.
In February 2013 Pollard rang me up and, in a conversation which I taped, admitted that he had excluded key evidence about Thompson from his report.
Pollard volunteered to me that Helen Boaden’s lawyer had written to him during his inquiry saying that Boaden had personally informed Thompson of Newsnight’s Savile investigation and its contents a day or two before Christmas Day 2011.
According to Boaden, she was in London when Thompson, visiting the BBC’s new offices in Salford, rang her to ask about it, having been tackled about Newsnight’s investigation at a drinks party – exactly as I had written in The Oldie. Boaden says she told Thompson all about Newsnight’s investigation.
This means, according to Boaden, that Thompson allowed the BBC to air the tributes to Savile even though he also knew that two Newsnight journalists had heard claims about his abuse.
No mention of this was made in Pollard’s report. Instead, Pollard wrote that he had ‘no reason’ to disbelieve Thompson’s pleas of ignorance. A misleading statement if ever there was one.
In what sounded like a crisis of conscience, Pollard told me during our phone call: ‘It is clear that it is Helen Boaden’s view that she told Mark Thompson [in December 2011 about Newsnight’s investigation]’.
He added: ‘I overlooked that … If I had thought about it I would have included it in my report ... It was a mistake of mine not to have picked up on this and recorded it in my report.’
Pollard encouraged me to write a news story about this shocking oversight but asked me not to name him as the source. I complied (the story appeared in The Sunday Times in February 2013) but when I asked him about it a few days later he closed down the conversation. Our relationship, such as it was, had ended.
I was angry that Pollard had put me in a situation where I was being used to slip out a key failing of his report – but with no consequences for Pollard or Thompson – so when the Tory MP Rob Wilson asked me about this development, I gave him chapter and verse, for public interest reasons.
Over the following months, Wilson wrote to Chris Patten, whose job was to represent the interests of licence fee payers, several times explaining Pollard’s woeful error.
Patten stonewalled tediously, so on 19th November 2013 Wilson sent him the tape recording of Pollard’s damning confession to me. Patten initially sent Wilson a veiled threat, suggesting legal action might ensue if he gave the tape to anybody else. On 11th December 2013, he held a meeting attended by three other BBC trustees. Between them they concluded, implausibly, that Pollard’s confession did not change the outcome of the Pollard Review. Patten declared that the ‘independent’ Pollard report could not be altered and so, to date, it remains a misleading document.
Patten is therefore responsible for cover-up number three.
Taken to its logical conclusion, does this mean that the BBC Trust regards Boaden – now the £350,000 head of BBC Radio – as an unreliable witness?
For if the Trust is siding with its ex-employee Thompson, it must be rejecting Boaden’s account.
What is particularly interesting is that Thompson has never asked The Oldie or The Daily Telegraph or the Guido Fawkes website to remove references dating from February 2012 which state that he knew about Newsnight’s investigation of Savile but did nothing.
I emailed Thompson and several of his New York Times colleagues for the purposes of this article asking why, since he is so convinced he never heard any allegations about Savile until after he quit the BBC, and has been cleared by the Pollard Review, he has not asked for a total retraction from each publication.
He didn’t reply – just as he had not replied when asked about the original Oldie article.