Learning the wrong lessons from BBC Savile scandal

Submitted by AWL on 26 October, 2012 - 7:23

Anger and outrage at the vile crimes committed against children is of course universal, as is shock that the widespread rumours about Savile were never acted upon and the victims were ignored. If you read any of the Mail, Express or Sun, however, there is no avoiding their sense of glee that the organisation at the centre of the controversy is the BBC.

The publicly-funded broadcasting corporation is a target for the right-wing press at the best of times, portrayed as the main source of left-wing propaganda, purveyor of loose morals and a tax-payer funded competitor to the privately-owned and profit-making media corporations. In the aftermath of Leveson, when the tabloid press are at their lowest standing for decades, a chance to redress the balance by lambasting the BBC is one not to be missed.

That said, the substance of the criticism of the BBC, even in the right-wing tabloids, is actually fair.

On the day after BBC Director General, George Entwhistle appeared before the Media Select Committee the Mail, for example, chose to emphasise three key failings at the BBC.

There was, they said, a culture of sexual harassment, citing among other witnesses, Liz Kershaw who reported being groped by a fellow DJ while live on air.

There was a pattern of belittling the victims of harassment summed up in a leaked email which revealed that one Beeb executive argued that the alleged victims were teenagers so they “were not that young”.

And there was a reliance on unacceptable and lame excuses including the statement, in the same leaked email, that it was all a long time ago, similar behaviour went on elsewhere and things were different then.

The problem with the right-wing attack on the BBC is not that it is inaccurate or even that it is partial. The fact that other organisations may have allowed the same behaviour and been guilty of the same excuse-making doesn’t lesson one iota the culpability of the BBC.

The problem is inconsistency and hypocrisy. There are lessons to be learned from the Savile affair but the right-wing press is determined not to learn them.

Jimmy Savile, Gary Glitter and others like them got away with their crimes in large part because they were at the height of their fame in a time when children were expected to know their place, when allegations made by children against adults were not taken seriously let alone believed, when rape victims were blamed not defended.

In almost every edition of the Mail and Express you will read highly-paid columnists bemoaning the end of that era and urging us to go back to it. Melanie Phillips and Peter Hitchens in particular date the end of modern civilisation from the 1960s with the advent of the pill, legalised abortion and the permissive society. They don’t acknowledge the link to, or consciously wish for, the bad bits of their imagined golden age, but they do work for a return to the culture of deference and patriarchy within which the likes of Savile thrived.

A stark and shocking example of this could be found in the belated confession of columnist Anne Atkins. Having preached her peculiarly reactionary morality at us on Radio Four’s “Thought for the Day”, over breakfast for years, Atkins revealed in the Mail on Sunday that she had failed to report a known paedophile because he was a family friend.

She described how a friend told her he had been sexually abused by another, older, mutual friend, a man who “was then, and to some extent still is, in a position of authority over other teenagers.” When asked why she didn’t report him she said, “the shocking thing is that it never occurred to me”. So all that faith and God turned out to be useless in the face of a moral no-brainer.

Melanie Phillips has decided that the cause of Jimmy Savile’s crimes and impunity was “the increasing sexualisation of young girls”. A growing issue in the 21st century, but can she really believe this was any kind of explanation for the 1970s and 80s? And the early sexualisation of girls is a problem mainly because of the way it denies and cuts short childhood not because of the “temptation” it places in the way of predatory adults. To suggest otherwise is just another variant of the idea that scantily-clad women cause rape.

In fact Phillips’ argument develops into a wholesale objection to sexual freedom and openness, seemingly oblivious to the way in which sexual repression and ignorance allows abuse to flourish.

On the more grimly amusing end of tabloid coverage was the Sun’s reaction to Entwhistle’s select committee appearance. Under the headline “Baffling, Bumbling, Clueless” the paper mocked the Director General for his poor memory and lack of curiosity when he was alerted to the Newsnight item on Savile which was pulled by the programme’s producer. He failed to ask what the contents of the programme were. He couldn’t remember why he hadn’t asked.

Fair criticism, perhaps. But it is not just Entwhistle whose memory is failing him. What other chief executive of a major media corporation has recently displayed a startling lack of curiosity and memory loss in the face of serial wrongdoing at the heart of their organisation?

Answers on the back of a postcard please, to the editor of the Sun.

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