John Simpson, the familiar white-haired reporter from countess war zones, and currently the BBC’s foreign editor, calls it “the worst crisis that I can remember in my nearly 50 years at the BBC.”
What does he mean? He means the BBC being engulfed in a broadening British scandal about the alleged sexual abuse of teenagers by one of the BBC’s biggest stars, the late Sir Jimmy Savile. A few weeks ago, a year after Savile’s death, the BBC’s commercial competitor, ITV, broadcast a scathing exposé of Savile. It claimed that while he worked as a BBC TV and radio personality in the 1970s and 1980s he routinely preyed on teenage girls. It also suggested that Savile’s extensive fundraising work for children’s charities – for which he was knighted – gave him access to vulnerable children whom he also abused.
Then it was revealed that the BBC had prepared its own questioning documentary about Savile and it was ready to air a year ago, but was shelved by some BBC bigwigs. Now the BBC is doing a report about BBC’s own reluctance to air the program. And it’s investigating its handling of complaints about Savile when he was alive and working for the broadcaster. Plus, the police are investigating hundreds of complaints about Savile. That’s some mess of a scandal.
I can recall when Jimmy Savile was a big deal in the U.K. in the 1970s. He was an obnoxious figure, and ubiquitous. Garishly dressed, and with a patter so brimming with insincerity it made your skin crawl, he was loathsome. When he hosted Top of the Pops, then the prime TV venue for pop music, most people tuned him out and waited for the music. Thing is, Savile was widely celebrated for his charity work. He raised millions for schools, in particular schools that housed the sick, the mentally-challenged and the disadvantaged.
Now it would appear that Savile created a persona and a network that we recognize today as the modus operandi of a predator. He simultaneously made himself untouchable as a public figure and created access to young victims. And decades after he allegedly began victimizing teenage girls, the BBC is in crisis.
Seen from afar, the Savile scandal might look like a novel, but local British affair. But it isn’t. We can we learn from this. We can learn several things. First, and most obviously, both over there and over here, we show too much deference to media celebrities. All celebrities, actually. There are those who are famous for achievements and those who are famous for being famous. In both cases, skepticism should never be off-limits. If an interview with a celebrity involved the exclusion of questions the star didn’t want asked, that should be reported.
Second, today the young and vulnerable working in broadcasting need protection. During the 1970s it was widely rumoured – and accepted – that teenage girls appearing as the audience in BBC’s Top of the Pops were preyed on by some presenters and some musicians. One can argue that such behaviour, while abhorrent, was more accepted then and is not accepted now. That argument is itself abhorrent. Today there is a media culture in which young people are expected to work for nothing, as unpaid interns, in order to gain experience. This system makes them highly vulnerable to all manner of exploitation and should be stopped.
Third, while the BBC might be in crisis about the Savile scandal, it is at least open about what happened and is now examining its own culture and practices. Most broadcasters avoid openness with a breathtaking arrogance, and this is especially true of several Canadian broadcasters. The CBC is obliged to be open about a very great deal. Commercial broadcasters here are not. There is a limited amount of media analysis in Canada and a culture of shut-your-mouth imperiousness. It would be far better to have more analysis, more questioning.
Fourth, a reckoning will come. Many powerful institutions have been exposed as protectors of abusers. We were naive about most of these powerful institutions and how they operate to protect themselves. We should learn not to be naive about powerful media and broadcasting institutions.
Fifth, the more women are in charge, the better off we are. When Jimmy Savile was in his prime years as a broadcaster and predator, few women were in power in any major media outlet in Britain. Rumours of his actions and predilections, we know now, were brushed off by men. Now that there are women in power, it’s less likely such rumours would be ignored.
Sixth and finally – we could stop trivializing sexual titillation. Many of us can remember when stories of sexual relations between teenage girls and pop stars were trivialized, and that’s the arena in which Jimmy Savile flourished. Today, I cringe when I see The Huffington Post, which presents itself as a serious competitor to this and other newspapers, obsess about “wardrobe malfunctions” by celebrities and present photo spreads. It’s snickering voyeurism, sometimes exploiting women too young or inexperienced in showbiz to know better, and for that voyeurism, too, a reckoning will come.